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     Feb 4, 2012

Nightmare at Narita
By Christopher Johnson

ALBERTA, Canada - 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 Narita.

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.

Immigration officials, 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 conviction.

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."

Immigration Bureau 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."

Asiana 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 anyone."

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."

The Tokyo 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.

A 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 weeks ago.

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 prefecture.

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 undesirable aliens".

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.

"Japan's immigration 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."

While many 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.

"I 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 nations.

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.

The 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 incident."

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 prison.

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."

Christopher Johnson (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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