Long shy about refugees, Japan prepares to welcome Ukrainians

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan said on Tuesday that evacuees from Ukraine would be able to convert short-term entry visas to longer-term visas allowing them to work, the latest move from long-timid Tokyo for refugees. to welcome Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn land.

The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 reached more than 2.8 million on Monday.

Japan, despite being the world’s third largest economy, has long been reluctant to accept refugees. In 2020, according to United Nations data, it took 47, of which 44 were admitted for “humanitarian” reasons.

But days after the invasion, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would welcome Ukrainians. Officials said applications would initially be limited to relatives and friends of the roughly 1,900 Ukrainians already in Japan.

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa said Ukrainians – who initially enter Japan on a short-term 90-day visa – will be able to upgrade to a special visa status allowing them to work, a key step towards building longer-term life. in Japan.

Other measures, as well as a comprehensive support plan, are being developed by the central government. A total of 47 Ukrainians have arrived in Japan since the start of the war.

Cities across the country have offered housing, while companies – led by Pan Pacific International, operator of a major Japanese chain of discount stores – have pledged jobs and financial support.

The speed of Japan’s response is almost unprecedented, refugee advocates say, citing strong media coverage and Kishida’s early adoption of the issue.

“Given Japan’s close alliance with the United States, I think there is also an element of willingness to contribute as a member of the Western bloc,” said Norihisa Orii, director of Pathways Japan, a refugee aid organization.

Japan’s distance from Europe may limit numbers, at least initially. Sergiy Korsunsky, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, told Reuters he did not expect more than a few hundred Ukrainians to come to the country.

“We have to start saying thank you to Japan, to the government of Japan,” said Alexander Dmitrenko, a Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer working to put together a refugee support plan.

“(And to) those people who, unusually for Japan, took a very strong stance, very quick action, in support of Ukraine in general, and our refugees in particular.”

(Additional reporting by Daniel Leussink and Kiyoshi Takenaka)