Hitoshi Kino, a bespectacled clerical employee at a university near Tokyo, doesn’t stand out.
Only a slight Vietnamese accent betrays his past, as he speaks in Japanese about being stranded on a rickety boat in waters off his war-torn homeland in 1980, starving with 32 others and left by pirates with nothing but his underpants.
Kino, who was then Ky Tu Duong, is one of more than 11,000 refugees that Japan took in over the three decades to 2005 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, under a little-remembered open-door policy which has never been repeated on such a scale.
Now, Kino and other “boat people” who have resettled in Japan believe Tokyo should again open its doors and let in some of today’s asylum seekers, including those from Syria, not just for those in distress but for Japan’s sake as well
“Japan should open up a little to them to align itself with the international community,” Kino, who became a Japanese citizen in mid-1980s, said over Chinese dumplings and stir-fry at a restaurant near his home west of Tokyo.
“It could be just 100, or 50. But it would be better than doing nothing.”
Japan took just 11 of 5,000 asylum-seekers last year, or 0.2%, the lowest acceptance rate in the club of rich nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In contrast, France took 22% and Germany 42%.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered nearly $2 billion to help other nations manage the flood of refugees from Syria’s civil war, but his government has virtually shut the door on those fleeing Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War Two.
This month’s attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed in mass shootings and suicide bombings blamed on Islamic State, could make any public discussion of accepting refugees into Japan even more difficult.
The government’s reluctance to accept refugees shows that opening up to immigration is still politically unpalatable, despite an alarming shrinkage in the country’s population.
After the 2011 nuclear disaster caused by earthquake and tsunami, “foreigners scrambled to leave Japan. But few of us former refugees fled”, Kino said. “Japan helped us and took care of us. We would not desert such a country.”
Indochina refugees speak not only of gratitude toward their adopted country but also of difficulties they have faced trying to fit into society, which prides itself on its homogeneous culture. Foreigners make up only 2 percent of the population.
On the job, some Japanese “assume we don’t understand things easily and we are not smart”, said Hoai Takahashi, another refugee from Vietnam who changed his name from Hoang Drong Hoai.
“They even say things like ‘This job should not be left to these people,’ in our very presence.”
Banri Kawai, formerly Nguyen Van Ry, works at a facility in eastern Japan that houses five former Vietnamese refugees with mental illness. He said they had been bullied by their Japanese seniors at work.
“They lost sleep and developed mental conditions,” he said after attending Sunday service with Takahashi at a Catholic church north of Tokyo.
Chrisna Ito, who arrived in Japan at the age of 15, says she was rebuked at a factory dorm for using the communal bath before others had finished. She assumed they thought she was dirty because her skin was darker than that of a typical Japanese.
Ito, a 43-year-old nursery school worker who was Cheth Chan Chrisna before fleeing Cambodia, had to start working at the rubber factory to support her family after six months of language and other adjustment training.
It was only after she married and had children - now in high school and college - that she fulfilled her aspiration to go to junior high and high school.
Asked how she feels about the government support she received, Ito reflected for a moment.
“I am grateful. But at the same time, I cannot help wondering if Japan could have done a little better.”
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2015.