- South Korea-based Asiana Airlines, one of the
largest carriers in Asia, says they've been a
victim of a "third party" accused of rights
violations and extorting money from passengers
detained at Narita International Airport outside
Tokyo. All Nippon Airways, which uses Narita
as a hub, says it is also "investigating" claims
by travelers who have complained that security
guards at Narita have harassed them to pay
"service fees" of 30,000 yen (about US$400), and
denied them rights to make phone calls while
separated from their luggage and wallets and
detained in windowless cells under the airport.
Amnesty International, citing Ministry of
Justice statistics, says more than 7,000
foreigners were detained at Narita in 2010, an
average of about 20 per day. Guards demanding
"service fees" of 30,000 yen could thus collect
about 600,000 yen (about $8,000)
per day. A reading of
Japan's Immigration Control Act found no reference
to laws or procedures governing such actions.
Local media reports, citing Justice
Ministry figures, say Japan has deported more than
100,000 foreigners since 2005. Amnesty, the
world's largest human-rights organization, has
released reports over the past decade accusing
immigration officials and guards of harassing
foreigners and denying them basic human rights at
Japan's immigration and detention
system has been under fire since Abubakar Awadu
Suraj, or "Mac Barry", a man from Ghana who had
been working in Tokyo for 22 years, died in the
custody of immigration officers while being bound,
gagged and forced onto an Egypt Air plane parked
at Narita in March 2010. Local press reports say
his Japanese widow is suing the immigration
officers, who have not been arrested or charged.
An expatriate Canadian journalist who has
been working legally in Japan since 1989, I was
detained for 20 hours in a windowless cell
underneath Narita Airport, expelled from Japan,
and forced onto an Air Canada flight to Vancouver
on December 24.
speaking through their own interpreter, said I
lacked proof of having sufficient funds to live in
Japan, asked questions about my travels and
contacts in Fukushima, and issued an Exclusion
Order with no official written explanation. I am
now exiled in Canada, unable to work or return to
my Japanese partner, two dogs and a Japanese-style
home in a leafy part of central Tokyo.
Last week, Japanese police also detained
two Tokyo-based French journalists for a week and
charged them with entering the forbidden zone
around the Fukushima reactors with falsified
documents. After being released this weekend, the
journalists told a fellow reporter in Tokyo that
they could face up to five years in jail in Japan,
which legal observers say has a 99% rate of
During my detention, guards,
uniformed men in their 50s or 60s who spoke
Japanese and another Asian language, demanded a
"service fee" of 30,000 yen to buy rice balls and
cold noodles at an airport store, and later
demanded the same amount in a "hotel fee" for a
night in jail.
Police at Narita, seeing me
escorted through a tunnel, said I did not have to
pay. Asiana also tweeted on Wednesday: "Asiana
does/will not ever enforce payment. We believe we
had been victimized. Please understand that this
was not Asiana."
documents say that airlines are responsible for
hiring the guards at Narita. "Concerning your
expenses for being in Japan [meal, lodging, guard
etc] till your departure, the Immigration Bureau
cannot take any responsibility," said an
officially stamped notice of the Ministry of
Justice Tokyo Immigration Bureau, given to me a
few hours before my expulsion. "This is a matter
between you and your carrier [airline company]."
A sign in the jail said: "This facility is
provided by requests of airline companies.
Immigration Office doesn't require the expenses
about the usage of this facility."
Airlines, which flew me to Narita on December 23
after a brief reporting trip to Seoul, said in a
tweet last weekend that they were also victims of
a "third party", referring to a security company
at the airport. "We would like to apologize to Mr
Johnson and his horrible experience. However we
had been victimized as well; this was not us. We
believe this was a third party's doing. Please
understand Asiana will not do anything to hurt
Asiana, a Star Alliance member
with more than 7,000 employees, was named the
airline with the best in-flight service in the
world by Global Travelers magazine in 2010.
Asiana and ANA have not said publicly who
that "third party" is.
Adam Mynott, former
BBC-TV war correspondent and now spokesman for
G4S, the world's largest security company, which
staffs airports in the United Kingdom, Canada and
other countries, said that G4S is not operating at
Narita. "(G4S) does not have any security business
whatsoever at Narita Airport, nor are there any
G4S affiliated Japanese companies working as
security guards at the airport," he said in an
e-mail. "I have made extensive checks and it
simply could not have been a G4S person who
escorted you in what was a horrific experience for
you, because we donít operate at Narita and no
affiliated company does either."
District Court in 2004 ordered a security firm,
I'M Co, and three guards at Narita to pay damages
for assaulting and extorting money from two
Tunisians denied entry into Japan in 2000,
according to Kyodo News. Judge Takaomi Takizawa
said "it cannot be denied they were forced to pay
money" and awarded them 2.2 million yen in
damages. It's not clear if the company, or those
guards, are still operating at Narita.
story in the Economist magazine about what it
calls "the ugly whirlpool" of Japan's detention
system has drawn at least 690 comments, more than
any other story other than the eurozone crisis in
recent weeks. More than 1,000 comments have
appeared on at least four online forums in Tokyo
since a story first appeared on the Tokyo-based
blog - by this author - Globalite Magazine three
Some say travelers are victims
of "gotcha bureaucracy", where Japanese officials
aim to expel foreigners on technicalities, while
others wonder if the government is cracking down
on foreigners critical of Japan's response to the
nuclear meltdown at reactors in Fukushima
Most travelers find Japan one
of the safest countries in the world, even after
last year's March tsunami and nuclear disasters.
The Japan National Tourism Organization has
launched a "Yokoso Japan" campaign to welcome
tourists from China and other countries to visit
rural regions whose stagnant economies need cash
infusions from outside.
Kyodo News, citing
Immigration Bureau statistics, reported that the
number of foreign arrivals in Japan dropped by
24.4% in 2011 compared with 2010, meaning that
2.31 million fewer foreigners came for work or
pleasure. The number of visitors last year, 7.14
million, is less than half the number of tourists
visiting Thailand per year, though Japan's
population is double that of Thailand.
Japan's Immigration Bureau says it doesn't
comment on individual cases. The Immigration
Bureau declares on its website
that it's motto is "internationalization in
compliance with the rules". It says the bureau
makes "contributions to sound development of
Japanese society" by "making efforts for smoother
cross-border human mobility" and "deporting
The problem, say
activists and observers, is their view of who is
"undesirable". People who would become refugees or
immigrants in other countries often end up
detained for months in Japan. Amnesty
International says Japan accepted only 30 refugees
in 2011 out of about 1,000 applicants, and it's
not clear how many remain in limbo in three large
detention centers nationwide that can house more
than 3,000 detainees.
bureau can be extremely capricious and unfair,"
tweeted Tokyo-based author Jake Adelstein, who
covered the bureau for a year for the Yomiuri,
Japan's largest daily. "I've had one friend
deported. Immigration has a horrible history of
mistreating people seeking refugee status in
Japan. It's a serious problem."
foreigners think Japan is a relatively gun-free
society, Article 61-4 of the Japanese immigration
act confirms that immigration officers are allowed
to carry and use weapons to restrain people, force
them onto a flight, or injure them if they resist.
During negotiations over payment for a one-way
ticket to Canada, an officer showed me a weapon in
his holster, and said he had the authority to use
it if I refused to go.
On December 23,
this reporter witnessed guards extort 30,000 yen
from an American college professor who had just
flown in from the United States to spend Christmas
with his son in Japan. He was harassed,
strip-searched, and detained for three days over
Christmas in a windowless cell underneath Narita
Airport. He had lived many years previously in
Japan, and had done a presentation in America
about anti-nuclear protests in Japan.
thought I could go back and visit my son but
apparently not," he said in a letter after his
return to America from what he calls his
"non-trip" to Japan. He asked to remain anonymous.
"I was not allowed into Japan and it seems that
they will never allow me to enter for the rest of
my life. I do have a son there and want to find
him to see how he is, but I guess I will just have
to wish him the best for his life."
Celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney,
world chess champion Bobby Fischer and Paris
Hilton have been detained at Narita and expelled
from Japan. Several expatriates and travelers from
the US, Canada the United Kingdom and Australia
have said privately that they were also victims of
wrongful deportation and similar abuses at Narita.
The largest number of deportees come from China,
South Korea, the Philippines and other Asian
One of Tokyo's most popular
British expat DJs was thrown out in 1995 for no
valid reason, he says, and forced to pay "service
fees" and buy an overpriced ticket to Hong Kong.
The head of one of Asia's leading photo agencies
said privately in an e-mail that he was once
hassled at immigration, on spurious drug charges,
even though government tourism officials were
waiting for him in the arrivals area.
Another Western male said he was jailed
for two weeks, deported and banned for five years.
"I have first-hand experience of the blackness of
the Japanese immigration authorities," he said in
an e-mail. "I have never felt such isolation and
helplessness before or since." He said his friend
from Canada experienced the same nightmare.
Another person, using the pseudonym
"mxlx3" on The Economist's Banyan blog, said he
was barred from re-entering Japan from Guam in
2002 after working legally in Japan for 11 years.
He said he lost his $125,000 per year job, all his
possessions in his apartment, and his Japanese
fiancee, because bureaucrats messed up his renewal
for a work permit. "The immigration official [at
Narita], doing his best 1970s TV bad cop
impression took me into a room and then started
berating me putting his face within 2 inches of my
own. This went on for hours."
He says they
"assigned a security guard to me" who demanded
50,000 yen and threatened to jail him for a month.
"I was also forced to buy a $2,400 ticket to
Vancouver." He was then handcuffed and made to sit
down "on plain display" as a warning to passengers
arriving for the next three hours.
guards took him onto the plane like a criminal
ahead of other passengers. "I have never been so
angry and humiliated. I sincerely believe that
there is a bad group of immigration officials at
Narita that power trip on detaining foreigners
entering Japan - and that unfortunate victims are
picked at random daily," he wrote. "Despite all
the good things about Japan and all my friends
there, I have not returned again after this
Danny Bloom, an American
journalist who came to Japan after a frightening
experience on a flight to Alaska, was arrested in
1995 on charges of working illegally for five
years at the Daily Yomiuri. He says he was never
allowed to appear in court, and he was held in
solitary confinement for 41 days in a Tokyo
Deported from Japan, he was forced
onto a plane, a terrifying experience for victims
of agoraphobia and post traumatic stress disorder.
Now exiled in Taiwan, he says he's not allowed to
return to "the police state" of Japan, even though
he still loves Japanese people. "Tell your story
loud and clear," he said in an e-mail. "We love
Japan and we want to reform it."
(www.globalite.posterous.com), has covered Asia
since 1987. He is author of Siamese Dreams
and the upcoming novel Kobe Blue.
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