Five ethnic Karen families comprising 27 people who fled Myanmar (Burma) and have been living in a refugee camp in Thailand will arrive in Japan on Tuesday to start a new life.
They represent the first batch of refugees that Japan will accept under a third-country resettlement arrangement.
Under this resettlement option, refugees who have fled their homeland because of conflict or oppression to a neighboring country may legally travel to and settle in a third country.
Japan plans to accept up to 90 refugees over three years under this formula.
There are an estimated 15 million refugees around the world. From a humanitarian viewpoint, countries that are at peace and enjoying prosperity have a moral obligation to provide shelter and protection for these people. But the number of people who come to Japan on their own to seek asylum and are recognized as refugees has totaled no more than several dozens per year.
Will the resettlement of Karen refugees lead to a major change in Japan's traditional reluctance to accept refugees?
The five families will spend their first six months in Japan learning the Japanese language and customs at a training center while living in apartments in Tokyo. Job placement services will also be offered to them. But half a year of orientation may not be enough for foreign families arriving in Japan for the first time.
There are limited job opportunities for foreign nationals without much knowledge of Japanese. Even if they receive support from the Burmese community in Japan, the Karen families will face a tough time landing on their feet.
In European countries that accept hundreds of refugees every year for third-country resettlement, local governments are actively involved in efforts to help them settle down in the local community.
The United States, which accepts tens of thousands of refugees annually, offers only a one-month orientation, but well-financed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide solid support for refugee communities.
Japan should also establish a system to aid refugees based on the viewpoint of human development. The system should ensure cooperation among local governments, NGOs, businesses and educational institutions to provide long-term support so that each refugee can achieve his or her full potential.
Unless such a system is established, the hopes of the 27 refugees will soon turn into disappointment.
The government provides more than 10 billion yen ($118 million) each year to help refugees overseas, including those from Afghanistan. It would do good service to the cause if a portion--even a few percent--of that money went to support refugees in Japan.
The government has not been very kind to people who come to Japan for protection. The procedure to be recognized as a refugee is lengthy, and woefully insufficient livelihood support is provided by the government while people wait for recognition. In recent years, an increasing number of asylum-seekers have been placed in holding facilities, adding to their anxiety.
Japan is not a popular destination among people living in refugee camps because of the prospect that they will face a great deal of difficulty here without any guarantee of a better life. On the other hand, every week several hundred Burmese refugees travel to North America for resettlement via Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture.
The "Japan passing" by refugees is a national disgrace to this Asian industrial country.
The administration of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan clearly needs a new unit in charge of promoting policies to accept refugees. Ministries and agencies concerned have been trying to shuffle off responsibility onto one another, and the current situation looks like an attempt only to develop a track record on accepting refugees using the third-country resettlements.
With its population of children declining, Japan needs to tackle such questions as what kind of immigrants it should accept and how it should try to improve the environment for their life in Japan.
At the heart of the refugee issue is the lack of a national strategy for making Japanese society more open to outsiders.