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Politics & Security

[Bookmark] Finding Courage to Protect the Uyghurs, One Municipality at a Time

Local assembly members throughout Japan have been unafraid to call out China by name on its human rights abuses. The Japanese government must find similar courage.

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Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region / East Turkestan

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Today’s theme is human rights and China’s long-arm reach of intimidation. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.

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Day after day, week after week, and year after year, the evidence mounts that the abuse of human rights in China has reached levels that are unconscionable and intolerable. 

Compared to other countries, the Japanese government has historically been reluctant to criticize the People’s Republic of China or take stronger actions, such as divestment, against it to the great frustration of human rights activists and supporters of Hong Kong, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and the Uyghurs, among other oppressed minority groups. 

The Fumio Kishida administration appears to understand the need to address the issue, having appointed former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani as a special advisor. Until recently, Nakatani headed a bipartisan parliamentary group focused on international human rights. But the appointment of new Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who headed the non-partisan Japan-China Parliamentarian Friendship League and is known to be pro-China, has caused many to worry about the Kishida administration’s commitment.

Japan’s Local Communities 

The human rights situation in China has direct and indirect political, diplomatic, economic, and geostrategic implications for Japan. It is time for the Japanese government to recognize this.

One place it should start is by calling the actions of the PRC against the Uyghur population of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the PRC’s name for the area otherwise commonly known as East Turkestan, a “genocide”. There is precedent. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did this when warning that “we are witnessing a systematic attempt to destroy the Uyghurs.”

The Uyghurs have been facing mass incarceration, ethnic cleansing, rape, forced labor, sterilization, mandatory birth control, cultural erasing, organ harvesting, and many other unspeakable atrocities. And the Uyghur community abroad, especially those in Japan, is correctly concerned about their own future and that of their families back home.

Fortunately, there are many local assembly members throughout the country who understand this. They formed a nationwide network called the Association of Japanese Local Assembly Members Supporting Uyghurs, to raise awareness and to put pressure on the all-too-slow central government. Established in October 2020, the Association works on human rights issues in cooperation with Japan Uyghur Association (JUA), the official contact point of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) in Japan. 

For years, local assembly members (including prefectural, city, town, and village assembly members) have received petitions from Uyghurs living in their communities and elsewhere in Japan regarding different issues, seeking help for refugee status, visa extensions, and naturalization, in light of China’s abuses of their human rights.

They also take up the cases of those who have returned to China in search of their relatives and have been disappeared themselves, such as Mihray Erkin, who completed graduate school at the University of Tokyo and returned to China at the request of her family (reportedly under pressure by Chinese authorities) only to be killed in an internment camp. Her only crime seems to have been that she was the niece of a prominent Uyghur scholar and linguist-in-exile. 

There are numerous other well-known academics, writers, and business leaders, all with a connection to Japan — graduates of Hokkaido University, Tokyo University of Science, Toyo Eiwa University, and many others—who have also been murdered. 

Those within Japan face direct and indirect intimidation. Chinese Ministry of State Security officials reportedly have shown up at rallies in Japan (and elsewhere), monitor their communications, or imprison family members back home.

The exact number of Uyghurs, although estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 people, in Japan, is unknown because the Immigration Control and Refugee Act has no separate stipulation for Uyghurs, Inner Mongolians, and Tibetans. As a result, these ethnic groups are registered as “Chinese nationals” in the Japanese government’s system. Even local governments, which are in charge of the affairs of foreign residents, do not know the actual number of these ethnic groups. 

The Japanese government, in turn, has had difficulty acting on the situation of the Uyghur community not knowing their exact number or details of their cases. In extreme cases, Uyghurs in Japan have been misidentified as Chinese and deported for overstaying their visas or other legal trouble.

RELATED: Chinese Officials Pressure Local Governments in Japan to Stop Criticizing China’s Actions

Local to National: Bringing Attention to the Issue

As a way to further learn about the Uyghurs’ situation, supportive assembly members have been organizing testimonial meetings (shōgen shūkai) around the country over the past five years, and conducting rallies, lectures, and exhibitions in cooperation with the JUA and other groups.

In the course of their assistance to Uyghurs and others, the local assembly members discovered the various bureaucratic silos involved. They had to deal with several ministries at the same time, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for visas, and the Ministry of Justice for naturalization and repatriation matters. However, a local assembly member has limited influence, and would have to get the cooperation of several members of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, to make progress. 

Eventually, the association decided to raise the issue with Fumio Kishida, now prime minister, and then a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and candidate for the party’s presidency. The association, which met with him in late August 2021, provided documentation of official responses to requests for assistance and the bureaucracy involved. Having served as foreign minister, Kishida was likely aware of some of the problems, and agreed to introduce the association to then-Minister of Justice Yōko Kamikawa, who heard the association’s description of the problems facing the ethnic groups.

During the presidential election in late September, Kishida took the association’s request into consideration and specified the Uyghur situation in his campaign promise. The LDP, under Kishida, also included the human rights situation in China in its platform for the recent Lower House election in which it emerged victorious. It says: 

“Regarding the various problems in human rights and other matters concerning the ethnic groups of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians, and people of Hong Kong, [we will] call for what needs to be called for and strongly demand responsible actions.” 

The LDP unfortunately did not actually name China in its criticism, however. The LDP and the government as a whole need to no longer be afraid to name China outright. Not wanting to offend is almost as bad as the crime itself. Might does not make Right, and so Japan, which stands on the correct side of this issue, needs to be assertive on behalf of all the victims of China’s oppression and suppression. 

There is no meaning to saying you respect human rights, the rule of law, and democracy if you do not fight for these values.

New Post of Human Rights Advisor

Another thing the local assembly members association had requested was that the Japanese government establish a single administrative contact point. 

As mentioned earlier Kishida recently appointed Nakatani as special advisor to the prime minister for human rights, following the Lower House election. Nakatani, a veteran politician, has served as the co-chair of the Nonpartisan Parliamentary League for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy, which was established in April 2021. Hopefully the government, through this position, will be able to address the various problems identified by the local assembly members association. While the new position itself was created at the national level with the support of the parliament, there is no denying the active lobbying of the local assembly members association made it possible.

With the establishment of this position, it can be said that the Japanese government has made a major move. However, Japan itself has not yet openly criticized China’s human rights situation in the form of a Diet resolution, despite the fact that more than a dozen nations have adopted resolutions, laws, and other sanctions against China at the national level.

To expedite this in Japan, the association sent out a letter to the assemblies of all 1700-plus municipalities this month urging them to adopt a resolution at the local level, calling on the central government to do more. This new effort is on top of earlier efforts this year.

The Will of the People

Assemblies throughout the country began adopting resolutions critical of China, beginning with the passage in March 2021 by the Naha City Assembly in Okinawa Prefecture. More than forty have been passed to date, from Ishigaki City Assembly in Okinawa to the south, to Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture in the north. A number of prefectural assemblies, including Hyogo, Saitama, Yamanashi, Tochigi, and Nara, have also adopted resolutions. 

While resolutions are not enforceable, they do play an important role in demonstrating the will of the people. It is something the Japanese government increasingly will not be able to ignore. Moreover, historically, the Japanese government has been able to leverage the will of the people in pursuit of national objectives that otherwise might have been difficult to achieve. 

Said another way, if the public is disinterested in a foreign policy issue or domestic matter it is difficult for the Japanese government to pursue it on its own. But if it can back up its actions with public opinion, then it has a stronger case. 

More and more Japanese are now aware of the horrific situation of the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in China. Many Japanese are also increasingly aware that a large number of Uyghurs have decided to take Japanese citizenship and remain in Japan rather than return to their homeland and face certain demise. 

More and more Japanese are aware, too, of the many Japanese companies — the most famous brands one can think of — that have business ties with the repressive regime and will likely face boycotts of their goods in the future if they continue to use products made through the labor of incarcerated peoples. 

RELATED: Japanese Firms Plan to Boycott Chinese Partners Forcing Uyghurs to Work

A Like-minded International Community

The two-page letter and one-page petition is now in the hands of all local and prefectural assembly members throughout the country. The Japanese government and parliament can no longer avoid taking a stronger stance on the issue of the inhumane practices of the PRC. Once it does so, it will be in even closer conjunction with the nations of the world critical of China’s human rights violations.

The month the non-partisan local assembly members association was formed, October 2020, coincidentally happened to be the same time that the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee was held. There, 39 countries, including Japan, issued a joint statement expressing grave concern over human rights violations in Hong Kong and Uyghur Autonomous Region, demanding respect for human rights and an investigation into abuses in Xinjiang (Uyghur) and Tibet, and immediate correction of the situation in Hong Kong where democracy has all but been extinguished.

The year before, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Xi Jinping during a visit to the PRC that the “international community has been increasingly concerned about the human rights situation surrounding the Uyghurs. I’d like the Chinese government to provide a transparent explanation on the issue.” 

China has continuously rebuffed these calls. In the meantime, more reports of abuses have become known. Japan has been too slow in truly pressing China on its human rights abuses or describing China’s actions as “genocide,” likely out of fear over economic, diplomatic, and political retaliation, or a rise in military tensions. 

But if Japan is to be a true protector and promoter of human rights, it must be willing to do so. Fortunately, local assembly members throughout the country have been unafraid to do this. 

The Japanese government must find similar courage. The Kishida administration has made a good, albeit cautious, start. Let’s hope it continues. Wouldn’t it be good, too, if it leads to a rejuvenation of democracy in Japan, in which the public embraces the interconnectedness between human rights and dignity, accountability and transparency, and democracy and the rule of law?

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Author: Dr. Robert Eldridge

Robert D. Eldridge is an author, translator, or editor of more than 100 books about Japanese politics and diplomacy, including Japan’s Backroom Politics: Factions in a Multiparty Age and The Prime Ministers of Postwar Japan, 1945-1995, both by Lexington Books.

Dr. Robert D. Eldridge is the Director, Northeast Asia, for the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation. He is also a senior fellow at the Japan Strategic Studies Forum in Tokyo, is the former political advisor for the United States Marine Corps in Japan and the author, translator, or editor of numerous books about U.S.-Japan relations including "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem," "The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute," "Japanese Public Opinion and the War on Terrorism," "Japan's Backroom Politics," "Japan's Postwar Prime Ministers," "Japan's Military Power," "The Japan Self-Defense Forces Law," "Search for Legitimacy," and "An Inoffensive Rearmament."