Inside the Gaijin Dungeon at Narita Airport in Japan


(This update on April 5 contains new information from the Justice Ministry, Canada’s department of foreign affairs, Asiana Airlines, and other sources. It also lists private security companies at Narita. I’m indebted to the people who have contributed research and their own tragic stories to this revised edition. Please send comments, anecdotes and info for inclusion in this story. Originally posted on Jan. 12, it remains a work in progress.)))

please also see:

Gulag for Gaijin at


Detained for 30 hours and expelled from Japan, a veteran Tokyo-based journalist gets a harrowing glimpse into the trap door at Narita Airport leading into a secretive underworld of rights abuses against thousands of foreign visitors and expats

a special investigative report by Christopher Johnson

—-When you line up to get your passport stamped at Narita international airport outside Tokyo, look to your right toward a set of “special examination rooms.” That is where the trap door into Japan’s secretive detention system begins.

Most travellers, who regard Japan as a civilized country, have no idea that thousands of foreign arrivals — including more than 7000 in 2010 and thousands in 2011 — have been refused entry, denied rights to phone calls, separated from their luggage and wallets, forced to pay bribes to guards, and detained in windowless dungeons in the bowels of the airport. From there, officials working behind the scenes have taken foreigners of all nationalities — seeking a pleasant vacation or a better life in Japan — into a gulag of “detention centres” across the archipelago where thousands of innocent foreigners have been kept in appalling conditions beyond the purview of journalists, rights groups and Japanese lawmakers.

Many people in Japan find it hard to believe that Japanese officials can harm and even kill innocent foreigners. Most travellers find Japan one of the safest countries in the world, even after the March tsunami and nuclear disasters. Haneda Airport in Tokyo Bay has won rave reviews for its new international wing, and Narita, about 65 kilometres outside Tokyo, is building a new wing for budget airlines. Japan has recently announced new measures to officially welcome well-educated foreign workers, and Japan’s tourism agency hopes to triple the number of visitors by 2016. 

But behind the scenes at Narita, shadowy group of security guards, subcontracted by airlines and possibly linked to organized crime, have harassed thousands of detainees into paying at least 30,000 yen (400 dollar) “hotel and service fees”, according to rights groups and several eyewitness reports. Victims have also accused airlines of charging exorbitant fees, negotiated under duress, for one-way tickets to the US, Canada and other destinations.

Amnesty International, 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. Ministry of Justice statistics, cited by Amnesty, said more than 7000 foreigners were detained at Narita airport in 2010, an average of about 20 per day. Guards extorting “service fees” of 30,000 yen could thus collect about 600,000 yen (about $8000) per day, or perhaps more than 2 million dollars per year.

South Korea-based Asiana Airlines, one of the largest carriers in Asia, says they’ve also been a victim of a “third party” accused of rights violations and extorting money from passengers detained at Narita.

Asiana tweeted: “Asiana does/will not ever enforce payment. We believe we had been victimized. Please understand that this was not Asiana.”

Thorough readings of Japan’s Immigration Control Act finds no mention of laws requiring foreign detainees to pay 30,000 yen or more per day for their detention. Thus some observers in Japan suspect a criminal syndicate is involved in profiting from passengers in legal limbo. The US Treasury Department recently announced sanctions on the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi network of gangs accused of illicit trade in drugs, children, prostitutes, brides, pornography, stocks, funds, property and other profitable things.

The mistreatment of foreigners in Japan is not confined to Narita. Local media reports, citing Justice Ministry figures, say Japan has deported more than 100,000 foreigners since 2005. Japan only accepted 21 refugees out of a record-high 1,867 applicants in 2011, the Justice Ministry said, according to a Kyodo News report Feb. 26. The number of asylum seekers was the highest since 1982, and was 60 percent higher than 2010, when 39 refugees were accepted. The number is a drop in the bucket compared with other wealthy nations. In 2011, asylum seekers included 491 from Myanmar, 251 from Nepal and 234 from Turkey. The report said that 248 foreigners were allowed to stay in Japan on humanitarian grounds. It’s not clear if that means Japan detained those 248 persons, while deporting at least 1,600 persons. 

As of November 2011, a total of 1,064 people were detained across Japan, including 12 minors, the Japan Times reported in March, citing Justice Ministry statistics.

Two people succeeded in taking their own lives at a detention center near Tokyo in 2010, and many more tried, the report said, citing Ushiku No Kai, a group supporting detainees. The Justice Ministry does not release the number of suicide attempts while in detention, but reported 45 cases of “self-harm” in 2010, the report said.

Local media reports, citing volunteers and the United Nations, say foreign detainees spend at least 18 hours a day in tiny crowded cells with no privacy, often for six months or longer, with no idea when they’ll be released or sent overseas. Patients such as diabetics are often given pain killers or tranquilizers rather than proper medical treatment. The detainees often have no previous criminal backgrounds, and would be accepted as refugees or immigrants in most other countries. 

The detainees are not only from China and other Asian nations. Canadians, for example, are more likely to run afoul of authorities in Japan than in Mexico, South Korea or Thailand. Japan has deported at least 31 Canadians the past ten years, including 5 in 2010 and another 5 in 2011, according to Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa.  As of February 20, at least 27 Canadians were detained in Japan, compared with 11 in Mexico, 9 in South Korea, and 4 in Thailand, he said. China was holding 83 Canadians, including many Chinese-Canadians, he said. 


It’s not clear how many Americans, Britons or others have been detained and deported.


Since 3800 Canadians are registered as living in Japan, the number of current detainees, 27, means that Canadian expats have almost a one percent chance of being detained in harsh conditions in Japanese jails. One Canadian died in an Osaka jail in 2006, and a popular Canadian TV newscaster was found dead the same year after relocating to Japan. 


Most Canadians in Japan are well-educated professionals working as educators, translators, technicians or designers. With strict drug laws and a reputation for a 99 percent conviction rate, Japan does not attract hardcore Canadian criminals. Longterm Canadian expats often complain they lack rights to vote, own land, or even rent apartments. 


While foreigners were volunteering or donating millions of dollars to Japan after the March 11 disasters, Japanese authorities continued a crackdown on non-Japanese, arresting 10,061, including 4,696 cases of alleged visa violations in 2011, Japan’s National Policy agency reported on Friday February 24, according to Kyodo News. The data does not include foreigners with permanent residency in Japan. 


These numbers are unusually high, considering that non-Japanese are less than 2 percent of the population in Japan. Less than 50,000 Americans — the size of a US college town — live in Japan, according to the Justice Ministry. Many expats and travellers fled Japan in 2011 amid aftershocks and explosions at nuclear reactors, while others have avoided travel to Japan.


Does this mean foreigners, even Canadians, can vanish in Japan? Or is it simply another case of Japan’s insularity and lack of transparency? Japan’s embassy in Canada has not replied to email requests for comment and statistics about Canadians in Japan. Narita airport authorities have also not replied to specific requests.

When you are detained at Narita, as I was for 30 hours in December, lawyers or embassies can do little to help you. 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 you, force you onto a flight, or injure you if you resist.

They can even kill you, seemingly with impunity. In March 2010, 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. Local press reports say his Japanese widow is suing the immigration officers, who have not been arrested or charged. It’s not clear if the alleged killers are still working at Narita or elsewhere in Japan.

What is clear is a pattern of extortion and rights violations at Narita dating back to its construction in the 1960s and 70s amid years of violent clashes, dubbed “Japan’s Vietnam”, at an airport once labeled “Saigon Airport” for its heavy security and right-wing suppression of leftist activists and local farmers. Narita’s negative image among some expats and travellers is not only rooted in the famous detentions and expulsions of celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, world chess champion Bobby Fischer, and Paris Hilton.  Amnesty International, other rights groups, and several dozen victims have publicly accused guards of human rights abuses — everything from extortion to theft, torture and denial of rights to call embassies, lawyers or family.

In an email, Amnesty International cited a Ministry of Justice report on November 24, 2011 saying that 7494 foreigners were detained at Narita in 2010. That means guards were handling a daily average of about 20 foreigners in legal limbo behind the scenes — not officially in Japan. Guards demanding “service fees” or “hotel fees” of 30,000 yen could thus collect about 600,000 yen (about $8000) per day. A reading of Japan’s Immigration Control Act found no reference to laws or procedures governing such actions. These are not fines, like parking tickets, with officially stamped receipts. It’s extortion. Thus many victims and observers suspect links to a criminal organization profiting from vulnerable passengers in legal limbo. 

Victims have also accused airlines of charging exorbitant fees, negotiated under duress, for one-way tickets to the US, Canada and other destinations. During negotiations on December 24 over payment for a one-way ticket to Canada, a uniformed officer showed me a weapon in his holster, and said he had the authority to use it if I refused to go. He was not angry, and he did not wave the weapon in my face. But, accustomed to the peaceful vibe of Japan, I felt like I was being forced at gunpoint into using my credit card against my will to make a purchase I didn’t want to make to travel to a distant country far from my home in Tokyo.

Though hundreds of foreigners commenting on chat sites in Japan have refused to believe this can happen, a Tokyo District court in 2004 confirmed that it does. Judge Takaomi Takizawa 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. “It cannot be denied they were forced to pay money,” said Judge Takizawa, who awarded ththe Economist magazine about what it calls “the ugly whirlpool” of Japan’s detention system em 2.2 million yen in damages. It’s not clear if the company, or those guards, are still operating at Narita.

An expat Canadian journalist who has been living and working legally in Japan on-and-off since 1989 and covering the nuclear meltdown and other stories for media worldwide, I was denied re-entry into Japan on December 23 after a reporting trip to South Korea. Japanese immigration officials, speaking through their own interpreter, wrongly accused me of lacking 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 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.

For 2 months, the Japanese government denied me access to my property, bank deposits, stock holdings, pets, and common law partner, who I’ve been living with in central Tokyo since 2005. I had work visas for Japan in 1989, 1994, 2005, and 2008. In 2011, Japan’s immigration bureau dragged its feet for more than 6 months on my application for a new visa to work as a journalist. I have reason to suspect that powerful persons, unhappy with my critical coverage, complained about me to the Immigration Bureau.  


In March, after more than two months wondering if I could ever return to my home in Japan, I was granted a new work visa, my fifth for Japan, thanks to support or pressure from powerful groups in Tokyo, Washington, Ottawa and Paris. I returned to Japan in March, where immigration officers at Narita apologized and allowed me to enter Japan. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group defending thousands of journalists worldwide, are investigating recent cases of foreign journalists mistreated in Japan. 

Since this story first appears in mid January, several foreigners from the US, Canada, the UK and other countries have told websites about their own nightmares at Narita. I also witnessed guards extort 30,000 yen from an American college professor on December 23.

South Korea-based Asiana Airlines, one of the largest carriers in Asia, tweeted in January that they’ve also been a victim of a “third party” at Narita. “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 7000 employees and several awards for service, have not said publicly who that “third party” is. 


All Nippon Airways says they are also looking into claims regarding mistreatment of passengers. Nao Gunji, a spokesperson for ANA in Los Angeles said, without elaborating, that a company named SEI is involved with security operations at Narita.  

The problem, on a wider scale, lies in what The Economist magazine calls “the ugly whirlpool” of Japan’s immigration and detention system. Unlike other wealthy countries, the island nation of Japan hasn’t opened its door to millions of refugees or immigrants. Amnesty’s annual report for 2011 says Japan accepted only 30 refugees out of about 1000 applicants this past year. It’s not clear what happened to the 970 or so failed applicants, and the Justice Ministry has not reported how many foreigners were detained or expelled in 2011.

Foreigners are more likely to wind up in jail than Japanese. In the 1980s, only about 100 foreigners per year would end up convicted and imprisoned, Shukan Shincho reported on Februrary 23. But those numbers grew to 1600 foreign prisoners in Japanese jails by 2003, and then more than doubled to 3,786 foreigners in Japan’s 12 prisons in 2010, about 4.4 percent of the total prison population. A Japanese TV report said that 400 foreigners, mainly from China and Iran, were among the 3200 inmates at an Osaka prison, and these foreigners have longer sentences — 5 years and 7 months on average — than Japanese, with 3 years and 3 months.  

Many foreigners, arrested on visa violations, end up deported before they can land in Japan’s regular prison system. 

According to Immigration Bureau figures quoted in local media, Japan has recently deported about 20,000 foreigners per year on average, including 33,000 in 2005, and another 18,578 in 2010. In other words, Japan has recently kicked out about one-fifth the number of people — 91,778 — who were, as of January 2010, “overstaying their visas”.

That 2010 number — 18,578 individuals with names and families, often in Japan — is roughly enough to fill about 100 jets flying out of Japan during the mass foreign exodus from aftershocks and radiation fears in March.

That number — 18,578 — is similar to the official death toll from the March 11 tsunami, which triggered a wave of international sympathy for Japan.

Yet other than Amnesty, the UNHCR and some courageous NGOs, few foreign organizations or celebrities have done anything about a system of abuses that ultimately damages Japan’s relations with its key trading partners, causes more than 100,000 people to bear grudges against Japan, and stains the image and balance sheets of airlines who have lost thousands of expelled foreigners as customers.

Following reports of suicides and hunger strikes at detention centres, the United Nations in 2007 criticized Japan’s long-term detention of foreigners and recommended shorter periods of confinement.  The Justice Ministry, which doesn’t allow journalists to visit detention centres, is starting to respond to the harsh criticism of the UN and rights groups.

The Ministry said in a statement this month that they have adopted a policy of trying to release detainees, who had overstayed visas or applied for asylum upon landing in Japan, within six months after their capture, according to Kyodo News. They said that 167 foreigners had been held for at least six months from March to August, when thousand of foreigners fled Japan after the nuclear explosions in Fukushima. Another 47 had been held in limbo for more than 12 months. 


The Ministry claims the numbers are a significant decrease from the 612 foreigners who, as of June 2010, had been detained more than six months. The government took more than 12 months, on average, to decide cases in 2010, and 5 months in 2011, according to the report. 


One detention centre, in Ibaraki prefecture, is less than 200 kilometres from a meltdown at Fukushima reactors. It’s not known if the detainees suffer any effects from radiation. The report did not say how many foreigners are currently imprisoned in Japan. 



Officials at the Justice Ministry and Immigration Bureau told reporters that they don’t comment on individual cases. But hundreds of people in and out of Japan have indeed commented on the matter, on chat sites and social media. A story in The Economist, which they called “Gulag for Gaijin”, included an excerpt from this blog. It drew more than 700 comments, and was the 2nd most commented upon story for several days, ahead of the US Republican race. More than 1000 comments have appeared on at least a dozen online forums in Japan, South Korea, the US and elsewhere. Some say travellers 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. Many people believe this story is made up, or exaggerated for dramatic effect. Others think it is a smoking gun, since it happened to a trained journalist who has a platform to expose it.

This is not an easy story to write, and it is not easy to forget. I am perhaps one of the few journalists who has ever seen inside the murky world behind the scenes at Narita. This is nothing to be proud of. I am deeply disturbed by what I saw. I feel great shame for myself and for Japan, a country I have loved since my first trip in 1987. I have done hundreds of feature stories promoting Japanese tourism and culture.

Hopping around the world and working in Japan, Thailand, China and other countries overseas on-and-off since 1987, I had work several work visas for Japan, including 1989, 2005 and 2008. I spent much of 2011 visiting a Tokyo immigration office and waiting for officials to process my application for a new visa to continue working as a journalist. Under new regulations, I was allowed to keep my passport during this time, and officers told me I could keep working. Various immigration officers in Tokyo told me several times I could leave and return to Japan during this process, thanks to new procedures. Indeed, I had no problem returning to Japan, on this same basis, from trips to Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Taiwan, Canada and Europe in 2011. But suddenly, after four or five months of waiting for a reply, I received a letter from the Immigration Bureau on a Friday night, demanding I deliver a complex set of documents and figures from myself and an employer by Monday morning. Even after I did that, they made the same difficult demands a few weeks later. (please see:

During this time in visa limbo, I wrote articles critical of TEPCO, Japan Tobacco, the Japan Volleyball Association, Tokyo’s Olympic bid, Olympus, Yomiuri, JAL, Rakuten, gangsters, fascists, and state neglect of tsunami survivors, nuclear refugees, and animals cruelly abandoned in the forbidden zone around the damaged Fukushima reactors. Though Japanese media deemed him taboo, I did stories about Naoto Matsumura, the lone man living inside the nuclear no-go area, and a harsh critic of the government.  

For various reasons, I received threats, as did other journalists in Japan, including a New York Times reporter and Jake Adelstein, a hard-hitting reporter for the Atlantic who reportedly often slept at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan out of fear of going home. Having worked in 9 war zones around the world, I refused to shy away from stories in Japan that could potentially cause powerful persons to complain to the Immigration Bureau behind my back. 

Did immigration officers, taking an unusually long time to decide on my application for a journalist visa, drag their feet and make impossible demands in order to expel a critical journalist from Japan? Was my name on a watchlist or a blacklist, waiting for me to leave the country and return again? Or was it a bureaucratic cock-up, or my own fault for allegedly not fulfilling Japan’s strict requirements of foreign journalists?

In 2007, a new law went into affect, which “requires the submission of personal identification information at immigration control,” according to an Immigration Bureau press release. I have not been able to access any file or information the government of Japan might have on me. I believe that governments around the world employ people to monitor the work of journalists, since I did that job myself for a firm while I was a journalism student in Ottawa. My job then was to summarize reports from articles in English and French, and indicate whether the articles were critical or not. It was not sinister. The government wanted feedback to see how people were reacting to their polices and actions. I enjoyed that job, since my kind superiors were in effect paying me to read the newspapers. The office was across from Parliament Hill, a place which holds magic for me.

Some 25 years later in Japan, any government monitor would have found my articles and TV reports to be very critical of certain aspects of Japan. But they also had reason to note my sympathy for ordinary Japanese people, and my efforts to promote tourism in Japan.

I didn’t flee Japan like thousands of foreigners after the March 11 disasters. Along with many other brave reporters in Japan, especially Japanese, I made personal sacrifices to tell the world about the plight of disaster victims, to generate sympathy for Japan. I earned income from sources outside Japan, and spent it inside Japan. In a country with tepid domestic spending, I probably spent more than 50,000 dollars on living costs in Japan in 2011, including money on hotels and rental cars in the disaster zone. I never broke the law in Japan, I paid taxes, I made myself literate in Japanese, and I always followed the immigration bureau’s instructions and supplied whatever documents they required.  All that loyalty to Japan meant nothing when I showed up at Narita Airport at 11 am on December 23 after a 3-day trip to  Seoul. 

While others were enjoying a 3-day weekend, I was detained at Narita Airport for 32 hours, and expelled from Japan on Christmas Eve, December 24. I was not allowed to go home to Tokyo to collect my things, or hug my partner and our dogs goodbye. I am now exiled in my own country, Canada.

Was I targeted, or just an unlucky victim of “gotcha bureaucracy” looking to find any technical reason to kick out foreigners? Was it bureaucratic incompetence, for which Japan has no shortage? Or was it a back-handed way to kick a critical journalist out of the country?

For some reason, immigration officers were noticeably surly at 11 am on Friday, December 23, the Emperor’s Birthday. Maybe they wanted the day off. Maybe they were tired and hungover from a year-end party. Maybe office politics were dragging them down. Maybe they are just tired of dealing with foreigners.

During interrogation, immigration officials at Narita misunderstood or falsified my statements, disregarded my proof, confiscated my passport and belongings, and arbitrarily denied me permission to enter Japan, where I have built up a career as a journalist covering Asia since 1987. An officer wrote “no proof, entry denied” on a document, and asked me to sign it. I refused. I was then put in a dungeon over night, harassed, robbed, denied rights, and forced onto a flight to Canada, charged to my credit card at an exorbitant price, against my will. They gave me an “Exclusion Order” bearing no written explanation, just a flight time and an official stamp of approval. Suddenly, my life in Japan was over.

But I now have a rare chance to tell the world what’s happening to people who fall down what the Economist calls the “ugly whirlpool” of Japan’s immigration and detention system. Though many comments on chat sites in Japan have tried to bully me into shutting up and not rocking their boat, I have to tell you about this place for your own self-defence. Ordinary people, even Japan’s top journalists, aren’t normally allowed down there. Amnesty has been repeatedly denied access. Amnesty says that even Japanese lawmakers haven’t been able to see inside the gulag.

But those rooms aren’t always empty. An innocent traveler might be locked away in there, right now.

xxx—x——–xxx———xxxx——xx—–x——xx——–x——-x——x——x—–xx——x xxxx ——— xxxxx ——xxxxxx——xxx——xxxxxx——xxxx——–xxxx—-xx


Many immigration officers are aware of international criticism about their actions, and some are trying to reform from within. One of the bureau’s main critics is their former chief, Hidenori Sakanaka. “One year of confinement is mentally tough,” Hidenori Sakanaka, who headed the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau from April 2002 to March 2005, told the Japan Times in July, 2010. The JT noted reports of suicides by a Brazilian and South Korean earlier that year, and hunger strikes at detention centers. “The Immigration Bureau must stop suicides and hunger strikes.”

He said detention centers and the Immigration Bureau must go public about the suicides and treatment of detainees, and also explain how a Ghanaian man, detained after working in Japan for 22 years, died in the custody of immigration officers or guards at Narita airport in March 2010. “The incidents give the Immigration Bureau a chance to improve itself.”

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. “Japan’s immigration bureau can be extremely capricious and unfair. I’ve had one friend deported,” tweeted Tokyo-based author Jake Adelstein, who covered the bureau for a year for the Yomiuri, Japan’s largest daily. “Immigration has a horrible history of mistreating people seeking refugee status in Japan. It’s a serious problem.”

Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat who says he worked on a Justice Ministry immigration reform committee for several years in Japan, has also criticized Japan’s treatment of foreign detainees. “These were the people who in effect answered Japan’s call for foreign labor back in the high growth period and stayed on as their visas expired. Many learned the language and some were settled into Japan with non-Japanese families and children,” he wrote in a comment on the NBR forum which includes many Japanese academics and officials. “Instead of rounding them up for rather cruel deportation, Japan should first of all have been thanking them for helping out during Japan’s period of acute labor shortage, and then should have devised a scheme for some of them at least be able to remain in Japan.”

Clark said immigration authorities in general tend to be “fairly lenient and keen to avoid trouble” with certain groups of foreigners “partly because there is a deal of yakuza involvement perhaps.” Clark also told the story of a young US couple who, after studying Japanese language and culture for years at a regional university, were detained, deported and banned from Japan for five years for overstaying their visa by a few weeks mainly because they lived in a remote area without an immigration office. (Other countries, such as Thailand, impose fines for visa overstays, and allow foreigners to return often on the same day.)

In fact, few of the 18,578 deportees in 2010 were hardcore criminals threatening Japanese society. The Japanese media stereotype of them as being poor, dirty, uneducated miscreants is wrong. Many deportees have Japanese wives, children, friends and pets. Many are fluent in Japanese, with college degrees and successful careers. In most cases, “overstaying” means they were dedicating their lives to working for Japanese bosses or employing Japanese in their own businesses, in a country that desperately needs entrepreneurs and job creators. These people, who would normally become immigrants or refugees in other countries, often become prisoners and suicide cases in Japan. All of these people were customers of airlines at Narita.

“Jim” is a white male college professor from the United States, who began teaching in Japan about 30 years ago. On December 23, he walked off a United Airilnes flight in a suit and tie, excited to spend Christmas with his son, now living with his ex-wife in Japan. “I got a really cheap ticket, and decided to go for it to see my son,” he told me while awaiting interrogation in the examination room. “The airline let me on, so there shouldn’t have been a problem.”

Jim would spend 72 hours over Christmas in the windowless dungeon, where he became a victim of extortion, theft, strip-searching, abuse, denial of rights and expulsion from Japan at a rip-off price. (It’s not clear why he was detained. I would later discover online that he had given speeches supporting anti-nuke protesters in Japan.)

“I thought I could go back and visit my son but apparently not,” he told me in a letter after his return to America from what he calls his “non-trip” to Japan. “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.”

What happened to Jim and I has happened to thousands of people from Asian countries. I didn’t realize before how many people like me — educated white males with careers and loved ones in Japan — have also been detained and deported. Several people from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia, who have contacted me since this story first appeared, say privately that they were also victims of wrongful deportation and similar abuses.

One of Tokyo’s most popular British expat DJs was thrown out in 1995 for no valid reason, he says, and forced to buy an overpriced ticket to Hong Kong. The founder of one of the world’s best photo agencies told me he was once hassled at immigration, on spurious drug charges, even though government tourism officials were waiting for him in the arrivals area.

A Canadian, writing under the name “Chuck Blade” in online magazines in Vancouver and Japan in the 1990s, said he was detained in 1997 on the grounds of having “an illegal phone card,” and robbed by guards on his way back to teach English in Japan after a holiday in Thailand. “So finally, after being threatened with arrest over the illegal phone card, I paid and spent the night in jail with about two dozen other people who were also refused entry into Japan that day. If this was an average daily catch of illegal aliens, then the annual revenues in this profitable trade exceeded two million dollars.”

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 and reading your story brought back a lot of scary memories. I have never felt such isolation and helplessness before or since.” He said his friend from Canada experienced the same nightmare.

Yet another male, with an Anglo-saxon name, had the misfortune of being in the examination room with about 20 people from the Middle East. “The first officers wouldn’t even listen to me,” he told me. “The cops there refused to even talk to me.” He was held for 8 hours and taken to the dungeon. “Finally, a high ranking officer came in and talked to me (about to stamp the papers to kick my ass out), when he realized that they were in error.” What saved him? His mother was born in Kyushu, and luckily he had a birth certificate in his pocket. He was half-Japanese, so they let him in.

A Canadian using the pseudonym “mxlx3” explained his ordeal in a comment to The Economist’s Banyan blog. After 11 years working legally and paying taxes in Japan, 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. After his sponsored work visa expired, immigration officers told him to leave Japan and come back on a tourist visa while his new employment visa was being processed. But upon returning from Guam in 2002, he was detained and expelled. “I had the exact same experience as Mr. Johnson,” he said, referring to my excerpt in The Economist. “The immigration official, doing his best 1970’s 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. No food or water was provided or allowed. They refused to bring an interpreter into the room.”

They also screamed at Brazilians who began to cry. “It was very bizarre and upsetting.” 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 $2400 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 then took him onto the plane like a criminal ahead of other passengers. “I have never been so angry and humiliated. I learned about a week later that immigration had stopped processing my work visa because I had tried to “enter the country illegally.”

“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. I do not want to have a repeat of such an experience. I’m afraid that I have somehow been “tagged” and that I would be refused entry again. The Canadian government is well aware of this issue. Once I returned to Canada I spoke to and then wrote to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. How is it that there is no accountability here?”

Yet even he was lucky compared to Danny Bloom, an American journalist who came to Japan hoping to cure the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he suffered due to a frightening experience on a flight to Alaska. After working for five years at the Daily Yomiuri, he says he was arrested on charges of overstaying his visa, held in solitary confinement for 41 days in 1995, and deported from Japan. Why did he overstay? He told police his PTSD prevented him from flying out of Japan to obtain a work permit, as required by law back then. They told him that Japanese don’t suffer from PTSD. They forced him onto a plane, a terrifying experience for victims or agoraphobia. 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 told me in an email. “We love Japan and we want to ReFORM it.”



Activists in Japan have long viewed Narita as a symbol of Japan’s state oppression of individuals. Trouble began when the government chose the site for a new airport in 1966 without consulting local farmers, who fought back with the help of students and activists. Farmers built underground strongholds, tied themselves to trees, and fought armed riot police and their own neighbours with their bare hands. Local media called the Sanrizuka area “Japan’s Vietnam”. In a series of clashes in 1971, 291 citizens were arrested, hundreds were injured, and 3 police officers died in a riot involving thousands on September 16.

The battle over Narita bitterly divided the area’s farming community between those who accepted compensation money for moving, and those who stood their ground. Many observers believe that bitter dispute created the authoritarian culture that lingers at Narita to this day.

In February 1968, 73 relocated farmers used their compensation money to form the Narita Airport Security Corporation. They hired a staff of 200 including former police and soldiers, according to author Hiroshi Shimazaki.

It’s not clear if the Narita Airport Security Corporation continues to directly or indirectly control guards at Narita, though it’s highly unlikely in Japan for a locally-entrenched corporation to willingly give up a profitable enterprise that could net perhaps 2 million dollars a year from detainees.

Shimazaki’s book 1992 book “Vision in Japanese entrepreneurship: the evolution of a security enterprise,” is one of the few sources online in English which delves into the shadowy world of Japanese private security firms and their alleged links to violent criminal organizations known in Japan as the “yakuza”.

Shimazaki also cites cases of security guards working with sokaiya gangsters to disrupt the attempts of Minamata mercury poisoning victims to raise questions at the Chisso corporations shareholders meeting in May 1971. “The reputation of the entire security guard industry was further tarnished by the apparent link between some companies and the boryoku-dan or yakuza,” he wrote.

When the Chiba prefectural government decided to take the land for Narita airport by force, the 200 private security guards joined several hundred riot police in attacking protesters, who included their former neighbours and 50 junior high school students and their parents.

According to Shimazaki, the Kyokusa Boryoku Shudan, or “extreme left mob” believed the new airport would become a US military base for the war in Vietnam. They came out to Chiba to support the 55 remaining families and many others in the area concerned about noise pollution from flights. By February 1971, they had constructed six forts, observations towers, communications stations and a 20-bed field hospital staffed by 50 students. Like the Red Shirts who overtook Bangkok in 2010, they armed themselves with wooden shields, bamboo spears, and gas bombs known as Molotov cocktails. It was their battleground to fight right-wing fascists in Japan.

Attacked by guards and police, protesters set fire to their barricade of wood and old tires, and many were injured on both sides in a week of clashes. On Sept. 16, 1971, three police officers died in fighting involving the guards and 15,000 protesters. “The Narita confrontation brought into question at the national level the functioning and legal standing of security firms whose guards wore uniforms resembling those of the police and who used nightsticks as weapons,” wrote Shimazaki.

Even while the company that built the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Dome worked on the airport, defiant residents built their own towers to block land meant to be runways. Four days before Narita’s scheduled opening, a group with molotov cocktails broke into the control tower, destroyed equipment, and delayed the opening by two months.

Though leftists managed to occupy the control tower, the rightists eventually won. The airport opened in 1978 with 14,000 security police guarding 6000 protesters, according to local media reports. A Japanese newscaster compared it to Saigon Airport.

For years, the airport resembled a military fortress, with barbed wire fences, watchtowers, armed sentries, and much heavier baggage checks and security presence than the much-loved Haneda airport in Tokyo Bay. The Diet legislature passed a special Emergency Measures Act at Narita which passengers notice even today during baggage and passport checks even before they reach the airport’s perimeter by car or train.

In the 1980s, protesters built two steel towers 30 and 60 meters high to block the approach of aircraft, until a court ordered them removed in 1990. A radical group was blamed for a series of bombings in 1987 at offices of companies expanding the airport.

Police in 1989 investigated a 74-year old grandmother for allegedly writing too many letters to officials. A decade later, the government again drew flack for building a runway without local consent in time for the 2002 World Cup. Even now, though it’s one of the world’s busiest airports, planes cannot land or take off at night while farmers sleep.

”It’s like a curse was placed on that site,” Geoffrey Tudor, director of public relations for Japan Air Lines, told the New York Times in 1989. ”It was the wrong site, and we’re never going to be able to forget that.”

Even forums that promote sightseeing in Japan, such as, often draw complaints about Narita. One forum in April 2011, about guards hassling a foreigner who was merely buying a ticket, drew 65 comments with similar complaints. “At Narita, the police check passports of Japanese citizens quite often, too,” wrote a Japanese commenter. “This is because of its long history of facing leftist opposition. Anyone who has landed on Runway 2 (the shorter one) might have recognized the banner ”Down with the Narita Airport!”.”




My own experience of detention and expulsion on Christmas Eve is consistent with dozens of previous cases cited by Amnesty, and at least ten other victims who have emailed me their stories. They tell horror stories about Narita, not other airports. Since there are fewer reports of these abuses at Haneda and other entry ports in Japan, victims suspect there is a criminal syndicate operating at Narita since at least 1996. They say it’s a scam, and a money-maker for the airlines and security guards.

As victims see it, immigration officers can arbitrarily decide to deny you entry, since all non-Japanese, regardless of visa status or tax payments or knowledge of Japanese culture, are considered “visitors” who do not automatically have the right to enter Japan.  They can find any rule or excuse to justify their decision, which can be rooted in their mood or opinion of someone.  The appeal process “to the Minister of Justice” is a sham. It doesn’t actually reach the Minister.

The process works like this. The immigration officer, upon convicting you, hands you off to a guard who shakes you down for 30,000 yen. He then delivers you to another guy in the dungeon who takes away your baggage — and rights. He in turn releases you to another guy who forces you to buy a rip-off plane ticket. If Amnesty is correct in estimating 7 cases per day on average, this syndicate could earn 200,000 yen per day in extortion fees, and 300,000 to perhaps a million yen per day on marked up airline tickets. Where does the money go? Are these guys drinking together after work? Who can stop them from doing this?

Some commentators have called them a modern form of “bandits” or a “gang of kidnappers” who use legal cover to hold you against your will to get money off you or your family. Others say they are merely doing their jobs of securing Japan’s borders, since Narita airport is the closest thing Japan has to a border crossing like the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit, which I used to walk across as a kid.

Perhaps I’m sensitive to people being mistreated or held against their will. When I was a child, my father and older brother (Gordie Johnson, leader of popular Canadian rock band Big Sugar and Texas-based Grady) were brutally beaten near our home. As a cub reporter fresh out of journalism school in 1987, I covered murders and hostage-taking incidents in the Detroit area. In 1991, I was mugged and beaten unconscious by a gang in a Nairobi park. Later that year, Serbian Chetniks who had just massacred about 70 people in a village near Vukovar, held me, Reuters correspondent Andrej Gustincic, and Swiss News Agency reporter Christian Wurtenburg against our will for about 24 hours, mainly because Andrej was on their death list. They forced us to see pools of blood in a school and other evidence of atrocities to show the world they were serious about defending themselves against their Croat rivals. Andrej saved our lives with his calm demeanor, which is the hallmark of the great war correspondents. But Christian, who had been sharing hotel rooms with me back then, was later murdered. I was 26 years old.

A decade later, the quick thinking of Swedish war correspondent Urban Hamid saved us from being abducted by notorious Abu Sayyaf kidnappers between Zamboanga and Basilan in the Philippines. Urban’s street smarts also saved us in Baghdad when we shared room 1033 of the Palestine Hotel during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Journalists around the world have been held against their will, as “human shields” to protect regimes from bombings.

Our colleague Daniel Pearl is one of many reporters slain by captors. Not long after our Thanksgiving Day dinner in Islamabad, he was abducted and murdered, another casualty of a global war against journalists trying to do their jobs.

I have worked in 9 war zones (Burma, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, East Timor, Aceh, Mindanao, Iraq, southern Thailand.) I always exhaled when I landed in Japan. I regarded Japan as a safe haven, a place where I could focus on work without fear of muggers, terrorists or state violence. That was usually true, and I still believe that Japan is safer than many other countries. But I was shocked by what happened to me this Christmas.

I shouldn’t have been. As I found out after doing some research online, Amnesty’s reports have cited many cases of brutal guards harassing and beating payments out of hundreds of foreign airline passengers arriving at Narita.  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.

On December 23, I witnessed guards abuse “Jim”, the American college professor, until he finally coughed up 30,000 yen, about 400 US. They repeatedly demanded the same from me. Gear and money went missing from my baggage. I later reported this to Tokyo police.

Since nobody is overseeing their actions, guards can take whatever they want from you — cash, credit cards — if they want. It’s your word against theirs, and you are not free to call for outside help, or to video them on your phone.

They drive a hard bargain. You either pay their price, or go back to jail. In my case, they threatened to make me pay as much as 400,000 yen ($5000) for a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Vancouver and Calgary. In the end, they charged me almost 100,000 yen for a dead-end ticket “purchased” against my will, and forced me onto a flight without much clothing for a new life in Alberta where winter temperatures often plummet to minus 40. As part of their bargaining process, someone called my longtime Japanese partner in Tokyo and threatened her, saying that if she didn’t cough up 200,000 yen for the ticket and “service fee”, her partner would face lengthy jail time.

After nearly 25 years of life in Asia, I arrived in Canada with 3-days clothing, far away from my beautiful old Japanese-style house in Tokyo.




Who are these guards? Who is employing them? I originally thought I saw “gas” written on their uniforms and van. That would correspond with a security company at Narita, Global Airport Security. However, after a rough draft of this story first appeared, several people wrote to suggest the guards are working for g4s, a UK-based company founded more than 100 years ago. A spokesman for g4s confirmed this is not true.


After being contacted by The Economist, Adam Mynott, director of media relations at g4s, and a former reporter for BBC-TV, told me in an email that 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.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 don’t operate at Narita and no affiliated company does either. I can understand your need to get the to the bottom of what happened, and I was struck in your piece by the conflict between the charming reasonable approach of 99% of Japanese in all walks of life that you have encountered and your airport nightmare.

I also have found no proof that g4s is operating at Narita.

Global Airport Security or other private security companies working behind the scenes in Japan might have good reason for wanting to draw upon the global success of g4s.


According to links sent by readers, g4s is indeed one of the world’s largest companies, with more than 600,000 employees in 125 countries. They reportedly supply security guards to more than 60 airports including Heathrow, Oslo and Vancouver, US military bases in South Korea, Immigration Removal Centers in the UK and detention centres in Australia, a state prison in Birmingham, England, the 2012 London Olympics, US nuclear power plants, oil tankers facing pirate attacks off Somalia, and Japanese embassies around the world.

It’s not clear where g4s operates in Japan. In South Korea, the US military on December 15 (a week before I returned from Seoul), accused g4s of violating a contract to guard their bases there, according to Stars and Stripes. Former guards have refused to work for the new company for longer hours and lower wages.  These guards have protested outside U.S. Army bases, including Yongsan Garrison, Camp Red Cloud, Camp Casey, Camp Humphreys, Camp Henry and Camp Carroll. (…


The company’s official website ( says they help ensure “the safety and welfare” of millions of people worldwide. “We secure airports and embassies, protect cash and valuables for banks and retailers across the globe, safeguard some of the most exciting events in the global sporting and entertainment calendar, and are a trusted partner to governments worldwide, keeping personnel and some of the world’s most important buildings safe and secure. What we do touches people’s lives in nearly every area you can imagine.”

A company press release said they won a $400 million contract to screen passengers and baggage at 20 airports in Canada, beginning November 1, 2011. When I passed through airports in Vancouver and Calgary on December 24, I found the security staff to be friendly and professional. Nobody demanded “service fees”.



ANA and JAL, which use Narita as a hub for their global operations, are among the most respected airlines in the world, and they are highly-regarded for their service and safety. Many airlines gained respect for flying passengers for free or reduced prices out of danger zones after the 2004 tsunami and 2011 nuclear disaster. Yet credit card and airline employees have stated that they would not normally reimburse payments in deportation cases, since their passengers had technically “authorized” purchases by signing forms. As one victim of this scam has noted, it’s the moral equivalent of an armed bank robber getting off because the victimized bank teller, fearing for her life, “signed” the withdrawal slip.

The immigration bureau’s own documents confirm 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).”

Guards allowed me to use a pencil to write down what 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 that they are 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 7000 employees, was named the airline with the best in-flight service in the world by Global Travelers magazine in 2010.

Asiana has not said publicly who that “third party” is.

In an email on Feb. 22, the retail management department of the public relations office of the Narita International Airport Corporation listed six private security companies operating at Narita, including the I’M Company.

In 2004, the Tokyo District Court ordered the 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.

Another company, Global Airport Security, likely employs the guards who took me in a van marked “GAS”.

In my case, officials for both Asiana Airlines and All Nippon Airways took several weeks to “investigate” claims and answer questions, and both airlines have tried to avoid any responsibility for the actions of private security guards at Narita. 


Jan Sohn, a customer relations officer at Asiana Airlines, wrote in an email on March 1: 

“Because every additional day a deportee is handled increases the maintenance and security cost of the whole detention system, independent of Asiana Airlines, the deportees are required to pay the security fee of JPY38,000 per person, and strongly encouraged to purchase their flight tickets as soon as possible.  Please understand that this is a legal system under Japanese Immigration, and the payment of JPY38,000 is not affiliated with an organized crime of any kind; it is a legitimate fee charged to each travellor (sic) that is not permitted to enter Japan.”


In a follow-up letter on March 9, she said: “The 2004 Tokyo District case you seem to be referring to was a case in which an inadmissible passenger (INAD) had filed a claim against the security company for physically assaulting him to pay the security fee, which is currently JPY38,000. This case depicted a specific instance of illegal extortion, as there had been physical violence and coercion of payment involved, but the case never ruled the collection of the fee itself illegal.”

She also claimed: “according to Article 59 Section 3 of the Japanese Law, the security fee incurred by an INAD falls under the airline’s responsibility; however, reciprocally, the airline has the right to indemnity the related fees to the INAD, ultimately making the INAD the final cost bearer.”


However, a reading of Article 59 Section 3 of Japan’s Immigration Control Act finds no mention of detainees having to pay 38,000 yen or other amounts in fees. It’s not known if other countries force detainees to pay “hotel and service” fees. 


Airlines have made millions of dollars off passengers forced to buy one-way tickets against their will. In my case, All Nippon Airways have refused to reimburse my costs. Nao Gunji, a public relations officer for All Nippon Airways, said ANA is not responsible for what happened to me at Narita, although they have charged my credit card about 100,000 yen for a one-way ticket which I was forced to buy. “I spoke with the Accounting Dept about your disputed charge with Visa and was advised that the issue should be discussed between you and Visa only. The name of the security company at Narita Airport is SEI. They work for the immigration office of Japan, not for airlines.” 


Other than the 2004 court conviction, it’s not clear if Japanese authorities have ever punished official conduct at Narita. In Canada, the QMI news agency says they’ve uncovered at least three cases of airport security staff stealing from passengers, which they called “examples of a national theft problem at Canada’s airports.”


Mary Susan Fernandes, 62, who had been an airport security screener at Vancouver International Airport for six years, was arrested in February 2008 after a passenger, Kin Wa Amy Leung, caught her trying to swipe a $100 bill from her bag during a search at a pre-flight security area, QMI reported, citing court records.


Leung confronted Fernandes, and the screener returned the money to Leung, claiming she removed it during the search and forgot to return it, according to Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) records, QMI said.

Leung complained to Aeroguard, a security company which employed Fernandes, and CATSA and the RCMP were called. Airport surveillance video was secured, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Fernandes. Fernandes pleaded guilty to theft on Dec. 10, 2009, and received a conditional discharge, a year’s probation and 20 hours community service. CATSA has barred her from screening work. Reached in B.C., Fernandes said she’s “retired” and denied robbing passengers, QMI reported.

In another case, a security screener at Ottawa International Airport resigned after he was caught taking home a laptop which a distracted passenger left behind. 

The QMI news agency says their investigation found that the RCMP and CATSA covered up these two incidents, and claimed a year earlier there were no such cases. 

Last fall, a QMI investigation found that Denis Bouffard, a Montreal security screener, had been caught stealing from passengers at Trudeau International Airport for eight months in 2002. Bouffard, convicted in 2003, alleged that other Montreal screeners also stole with impunity.

The QMI agency said CATSA officials told them last year that they were “unaware” of any Canadian airport security screeners ever being arrested or convicted for stealing from airline passengers and insisted they kept no records about such cases. A probe by QMI, responding to complaints by passengers who alleged thefts and demanded compensation, found otherwise. 

CATSA spokesman Mathieu Larocque said those records didn’t surface when officials processed QMI Agency’s request because they were classified differently in a database, QMI reported.

The Vancouver case never resulted in a complaint or compensation claim to CATSA. “It was resolved at the checkpoint,” Larocque said. “We did not intend to mislead anyone.”

According to a separate news report, Ricky German, a security screener at Memphis Airport in 2010, took a computer left behind by a male US passenger. He removed identifying information, wrapped it in his coat and hid it, telling the passenger who lost it he knew nothing about its whereabouts, court documents state.

Memphis Police told German they would review airport surveillance video for possible clues. Soon after, German claimed he “found” the missing laptop. German was fired, arrested and charged with theft and making a false statement. He was convicted in U.S. Federal Court, and sentenced on January 27 to eight months in jail.



Without any action to hold authorities responsible for mistreatment of foreigners, airlines and tour operators in Japan are likely to continue suffering from the negative publicity generated by foreigners detained and expelled from Japan. A story in the Economist magazine about what it calls “the ugly whirlpool” of Japan’s detention system drew at least 700 comments, more than any other story other than the Eurozone crisis for a few weeks in January and February. More than 1000 comments have appeared on at least four online forums in Tokyo since this story first appeared on my Tokyo-based blog Globalite Magazine on January 12. Some say travellers 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. 

Earlier this year, 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, the journalists told a fellow reporter in Tokyo that they could face up to 5 years in jail in Japan, which legal observers say has a 99 percent rate of conviction. Recent reports suggest that police raided their home, confiscated equipment, and asked them to pay a fine, rather than spending more time in jail. 

The Immigration Bureau likes to publicly blame the March disasters and the high yen for a record decline in foreign visitors to Japan in 2011. They said the number of arrivals dropped by 24.4 percent compared with 2010, according to Kyodo News. That means 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.

When I was studying Japanese and working in Kansai in 1990, about 3 million foreigners came to Japan, which was a magic lantern to the world back then. That number jumped to 5 million by 2000, and 9 million in 2007 (a three-fold increase over 17 years, but still half Thailand, which grew by 18 times in that period.) But then, something happened. The numbers in 2009 plummeted by 17 percent, to 7.5 million. Japan blamed the global financial crisis and the H1N1 virus. But then Tokyo eased up restrictions and opened the doors to more Chinese tourists, and boom, the numbers jumped up 24 percent to 9.44 million. In other words, though the Immigration Bureau is not saying this, an official policy to welcome foreigners resulted in a massive infusion of cash into Japan.

But then the tsunami caught TEPCO off guard in Fukushima, and the government did nothing to arrest officials or forever ban nukes from Japan. Foreigners fled in horror. One friend, a bright young IT entrepreneur with a Japanese wife and baby, fled to Europe after seeing “the dark-side” of Japan. The numbers of foreign visitors — and we are all deemed visitors — dropped 46.2 percent in March, 54.5 percent in April, 11.6 percent in November, and 10.4 percent in December. “Jim” and I were nano-parts of that drop in December. Instead of welcoming us back to Japan, to help boost the number of arrivals and stimulate domestic spending, they found reasons to Deny Entry, and gave us a tour of “detention facilities” at Narita.


Amnesty says Narita has two Landing Prevention Facilities — one for men, another for women. They are called Joriku Boshi Shisetsu in Japanese. Debito Arudou, an activist and author in Japan, calls them “Gaijin Tanks”. For many airline passengers, these Gaijin Tanks are the first step into Japan’s gulag housing hundreds of foreigners in shocking conditions at detention centres in the gorgeous port city of Nagasaki, the comedy hotpot of Osaka, and the Tokyo bedroom community of Ushiku, Ibaraki. The Global Detention Project says the immigration bureau has room to hold 3410 people in those three large detention centres, plus at least 12 other jails at their branch offices.

A Japanese priest who often visits Ushiku outside of Tokyo has reported barbaric conditions: a jail with 10 people sleeping in a 10-tatami mat room with no view, zero privacy, cold meals, little exercise, nothing to do, little legal recourse, and scant media attention. According to Amnesty International’s “Annual Report: Japan 2011”, detainees there went on hunger strike in May, following a similar strike in Osaka in February. They demanded improved conditions and release of minors, sick people, and those held for long periods.  Two foreigners there committed suicide this year, and many people who came to Japan full of energy and ambition have succumbed to mental illness.

Despite unprecedented talks between NGOs and Justice Ministry bureaucrats during a four-day conference in October, Amnesty’s 2011 report noted that Japan is still detaining “irregular migrants and asylum seekers, including children” for indefinite periods without “recourse to independent review.”


Sumie Kawakami did a detailed, well-balanced story about Ushiku for the Japan Times in March.


According to Justice Ministry statistics, a total of 1,064 people were detained across Japan, including 12 minors, as of November 2011. 

Two people succeeded in taking their own lives at the Ushiku center in 2010, and many more tried, says Ushiku No Kai, a group supporting detainees. The Justice Ministry does not release the number of suicide attempts while in detention, but reported 45 cases of “self-harm” in 2010.

In 2010, detainees at the West Japan Immigration Center in Osaka and the Ushiku center went on hunger strike in March and May, respectively, demanding that those detained for long periods, as well as minors and the sick, be released, and that detention conditions, including access to medical treatment, be improved.

Mitsuru Miyasako of the support group Bond, who often visits the Ushiku center, told the Japan Times that the centre only has one doctor on site four days a week, for about 300 persons currently detained there. He says doctors often give detainees painkillers and tranquilizers without diagnosing their symptoms. He says detainees are only allowed to exercise 40 minutes a day, Monday to Friday.

In April 2010, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, said irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Japan face discrimination, exploitation and other forms of mistreatment. After meeting with detainees, he wrote about their poor treatment. “Many of the detainees that the special rapporteur met suffered from various diseases, in some cases very serious, and the majority complained about not receiving adequate health care. They had not been allowed to continue the medication they had been taking before they were detained, and were given light medication instead, which was seriously compromising their health and possibility of recovering. For example, a detainee suffering from diabetes reported he was only given painkillers and his condition had worsened tremendously.”

He also complained about rights violations. “A considerable number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers are detained for very long periods with limited access to judicial processes,” said Bustamente, according to the Japan Times. “While a legal counsel is allowed to intervene in the procedures of requesting a special permission to stay, such interventions are restricted.”

Nakagawa, the Ushiku official, said the center acknowledges the complaints about its health care system and the length and frequency of the exercise sessions and is working to improve the situation despite operating with limited resources.

Detainees at the Ushiku center have a daily routine of “free hours” between 9:30 a.m. and noon, and 1-4:30 p.m. During those times, they can take showers, do their laundry or call their families. For the other 18 hours of the day, they are locked in small rooms where they have no privacy at all.

Families are not allowed to bring in food for the detainees other than the snacks and cup noodles sold at the center.

On paper, a detention order normally authorizes a maximum detention of 60 days. But in reality, officials can issue a deportation order and then hold a person indefinitely, often 6 months or a year in many cases. 

Responding to a request by the Solidarity Networks for Migrants in Japan, the Justice Ministry said that as of November 2011, they had detained 98 foreigners for at least 6 months, and 12 for at least 18 months. 

In February this year, the Justice Ministry signed a memorandum with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and the Forum for Refugees Japan, a nonprofit organization, to work together to improve the treatment of asylum seekers and discuss alternatives to detention. Rights groups generally welcome the move as a step forward, but whether the ministry will live up to its promise is yet to be seen.

For many, their “crime” was failing in their marriages to Japanese. They lost their spousal visas, which are valid for 3 years, and want to stay in Japan to see their kids. 

Even happy marriages can be punished. Snow Hanada met a 23-year old man from Dominica at a bar in Tokyo in July 2010. They fell in love and within a month, began living together. “For me, he is like a sun on a white, sandy beach,” recalls Hanada. “We loved to listen to Latin music together on Sundays, just being lazy.”

By December 2010, they talked about raising a family. “I got a feeling that he might be overstaying, so I asked him straight out. I wanted to get things right, if we were going to be serious,” she said.

He told her the truth: He came to Japan in 2008 when he was a student, and was overstaying his visa when they met.

They examined Japanese immigration regulations and found that overstayers could apply for special permits to stay in Japan known as zaitoku. But the guidelines were complicated. 

The Justice Ministry issued its “Guidelines on Special Permission to Stay in Japan” in 2006. A revision in 2009 was supposed to make it easier for overstayers with families to remain in Japan. But couples had to prove they were living together “for a significant period of time”, and their marriage was “stable and mature”, according to unnamed rights group quoted by the Japan Times. This worked against couples without kids. 

Hanada and her Dominican partner decided to get married first, then go to the Immigration office. But just two weeks before the wedding date, immigration officials arrested him in June 2011 on suspicion of overstaying his visa. 

Even though he was detained, the local municipality accepted their marriage application, and prosecutors decided not to indict him. But the immigration officers held him anyway for 7 months, until he was released in January. 

Hanada says the ordeal had made her more determined to reform Japan’s policies, and to support other families going through their own version of hell.  “None of these people need to be treated like this. The (3/11) earthquake last year highlighted the importance of kizuna (human ties), yet the authorities are undermining the value of the family. They think they have the right to judge which families are to be separated.”


A separate report in March by Maya Kaneko of Kyodo News showed how Japan’s policies punish families. 

Md Shahidul Huq, a 42-year-old Bangladeshi freelance photographer who has lived in Japan for 23 years, was detained for about a year while facing a deportation order. He has been released, and is now challenging the deportation order, which could bar him from Japan for 5 years. His daughter, now 7, would be 12 by that time. 

Before being detained, he paid alimony to his ex-wife, and visited his daughter every three months in Kochi. “The immigration authorities turned down my application for a long-term resident visa because I didn’t have custody of my child,” he said. “In my country, it’s natural for parents to meet children even after divorce. Since I haven’t seen my daughter for a long time, I’m worried if she has forgotten about me,” he said. “Children need both parents. One parent cannot give them enough counsel,” Huq said. “If I’m deported back to Bangladesh, I’d be worried about my daughter to death.”

In a similar case, an unnamed foundry worker from Mali, age 28, divorced from his Japanese wife in 2009, and met their three-year old daughter twice a month. But she forbid him to visit them after he failed in his application to obtain a long-term resident visa. He was detained in October 2010, and held for half a year. 

“Probably my former wife wishes I would be forced out of Japan, but once I return to Mali, I cannot see my daughter and both the kid and I will suffer,” he said. “Every child wants to know what his or her parent is like. I believe the system in Japan that prevents exchanges between parents and children should be changed.”

“Generally speaking, divorced foreigners who had been married to a Japanese for three years are considered eligible to apply for a long-term resident visa,” said Jotaro Kato, a representative of the Asian People’s Friendship Society, which is offering support to the two men. “Compared with fathers without child custody, it would be easier for mothers to acquire such a visa if they mainly take care of children who have Japanese nationality after divorce.” Among such foreign fathers, many white-collar workers can continue to stay in Japan on a working visa, but the status of blue-collar workers tends to become unstable after their spousal visa expires, Kato said. 

Masako Suzuki, an attorney at Tokyo Public Law Office’s section on legal assistance for foreigners, said that foreign parents without legal custody of their kids are in a weak position. “Japanese former spouses who don’t want to have their kids see the other parent often exploit the immigration authorities’ disregard for visitation rights in examining foreign parents’ residence status,” Suzuki said. Immigration officials also suspect that some foreigners claim visitation rights “just as an excuse to continue to stay in Japan,” she added.


Japan was detaining at least 1,119 foreigners at the end of 2010, compared with 1,621 at the end of 2009, said a report in the Japan Times, according to an article by Masami Ito in the Japan Times, citing Justice Ministry figures. The largest number of detainees come from China, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand in that order. 

In 2010, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations warned Justice Minister Yoshito Sengoku about rights violations for detaining a couple from the Philippines while forcing their children to live separately in a welfare home for kids. “By robbing them of their freedom, their right to stay together as a family and the children’s right to education were violated — this is a clear violation of human rights,” the bar said, according to the Japan Times.

In 2007, the United Nations Committee Against Torture recommended that Japan “should establish limits to the length of the detention period for persons awaiting deportation.”

“Everyone is in agreement, including the Immigration Bureau, that real refugees need great protection. But the truth is, there are some who try and abuse the system,” an official at the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau said, according to the Japan Times article. “It is very difficult to ascertain whether they (qualify as) refugees.”

In 2009, a legal revision led to the creation of a third-party group made up of academics, nongovernmental organization staff and medical and legal experts tasked with inspecting the 20 nationwide detention facilities and issue remedial recommendations to the Justice Ministry.

While calling the inspection panel a step in the right direction, lawyer Koichi Kodama, an expert on immigration issues, noted it lacks independence and the Immigration Bureau controls its visits, including which detainees it can interview. Everything is planned in advance. There are no surprise visits.

“There was nothing before, so (the panel) is better than (nothing),” Kodama said. “But there is the danger of the committee just being a decoration and nothing more . . . realistically, I think it has a long way to go before it can actually meet the expectations of the U.N.”

In early February 2012, the ministry, the JFBA and Forum for Refugees Japan, a nonprofit group, signed an agreement to hold trilateral consultations to improve the overall refugee recognition system.

Many are not convinced that reforms are happening fast enough. 

Kodama is one of the lawyers representing the family of Mr. Suraj, who died at Narita during a forced deportation in 2010. The case is currently before the Tokyo District Court. The Japanese wife of Mr. Suraj, whom he married in 2006 and with whom he was with for 22 years before his death, and his mother are seeking ¥136 million in damages against the government. 

Kodama says that each center has a Japanese doctor present, meaning one doctor for hundreds of patients. The doctor in Ibaraki can speak Japanese, Chinese and English, but the doctors in Osaka and Nagasaki cannot communicate with patients who don’t speak Japanese. The Immigration Bureau says they provide interpreters. 

Kodama criticized the doctors. “These doctors have no intention to provide true medical treatment to the detainees, and instead merely take stopgap measures,” Kodama said. “It is wrong — these detainees end up just being narcotized.”

Detainees get three meals a day, and in the morning and afternoon they are free to socialize in their cellblock, shower, do their laundry or play pingpong, the Immigration Bureau official said.

Foreigners with special dietary needs for example can have vegetarian meals, or dishes without pork or other kinds of meat, but Halal food is not available.

They are also allowed to make phone calls and have visitors during visiting hours.

In principle, each visit is 30 minutes but supporters says that on average the visits only last 10 to 15 minutes.

Kodama noted there are no clear criteria for when a provisional release is granted or refused.

“The Immigration Bureau must have some sort of internal standard, but officials won’t tell us . . . detainees can reapply if their bids are rejected, but without knowing why they were turned down in the first place, they don’t know what sort of information is necessary,” Kodama said.


Many foreigners in Japan support Japan’s tough stance against asylum seekers and foreigners without proper visas in Japan. This policy has also drawn praise overseas, from moderates and even the accused mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. Breivik, who allegedly massacred 76 people in Norway this summer, reportedly praised monocultural Japan and South Korea as model countries for keeping out ethnic groups including Muslims. They are “scientifically advanced, economically progressive” societies “which will not accept multiculturalism or Cultural Marxist principles,” he allegedly wrote in his 1500 page manifesto. As a result, he said, Japan and South Korea are today the most peaceful societies “where you can travel freely everywhere without the constant fear of getting raped, ravaged, robbed or killed.”

The story in (which often runs my work for drew 240 comments in July. Most were outraged at Breivik’s actions, and Japan’s own crackdown on foreigners who contribute to Japan’s sluggish economy.

As they noted, most industrialized countries allow in large numbers of immigrants and refugees who bring fresh energy and ambitions to society. But Japan, with a shrinking population and ageing workforce, only allowed in 30 refugees in 2011, according to Amnesty, and only 46 in 2005, according to the US State Department.

Just a year after Japan hosted the World Cup in 2002, the Justice Ministry decided to get tough on an estimated 250,000 foreigners overstaying their visas to work in Japan.  “For national security, the problem of these illegal residents requires immediate attention,” a ministry spokesman warned in 2003, according to the Japan Times.

The Immigration Bureau said it deported 33,192 foreigners in 2005. NGOs estimate that about 30 percent were Chinese, meaning there are at least 10,000 people in China — from that year alone — who have reason to want revenge against Japan. Yet Japan’s tourism organizations are hoping to attract huge numbers of Chinese to visit depopulating regions of Japan, such as Hokkaido and Tohoku.

Many deportees were from countries that Japan occupied in the 1940s: South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Though they are key trading partners, Japan is creating a new generation of enemies among deportees who go home to tell their friends horror stories about Japan.  It’s as if Germany was trying to build better regional economic ties while abusively detaining thousands from Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia.



The gaijin gulag, as I discovered, begins deep within Narita international airport terminal 2.

Forget about the planes landing and taking off. Think of the airport as a maximum security prison. With hundreds of armed men, security cameras, and a special legal jurisdiction of its own, it is incredibly secure, and secretive. It is the best place in the country to make someone — anyone — disappear.

It is probably one of the hardest jails to escape from in the world. The Gaijin Tank is tucked away, behind a series of confusing corridors, somewhere near the bottom of a grey tunnel a few stories under the ground. The guards, wearing vests marked “Gas”, drive suspects — including tourists and celebrities — down there in a van marked “Gas”. They speak a language that I didn’t recognize from my travels across Asia since 1987. It could have been a dialect of Korean or Mongolian. For all I know, it could have also been Gurkha from Nepal.

How many suspects have been taken there? How many people have committed suicide? How many have been beaten to death, or tortured, or spirited away into a secretive prison system?

Airport police officers who spoke with this reporter seemingly did not even know about this place, or what goes on down there. Immigration officers call it a “hotel” or a “detention facility.” As Jim and I found out, it is a horrifying, depressing, inescapable jail where guards immediately tell you, “You have no rights here.” No right to make phone calls or use the internet to contact a lawyer or anyone else outside. As Jim says, “They presume you are guilty, and treat you like a criminal, no matter how innocent you are.”

I fell into the trap on my way home to Tokyo after a 3-day trip to Seoul. It was not a “visa run”. After North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died, I immediately bought a round-trip ticket to Seoul, and flew the next day. It was my first time to Korea in years, and I enjoyed their hospitality. But I missed Japan. I was planning to spend Christmas at home in Tokyo with my partner of the past 7 years, our two dogs, and her Japanese family. For the next two weeks after that, I had flight and hotel reservations for ski trips to Hokkaido and Tohoku. With the help of regional government tourism agencies, I was planning to do feature stories to promote foreign tourism to Japan. (I have done more than 100 feature stories promoting Japan and its culture.) Then I was going to fly to Melbourne to cover the Australian Open, my favourite event. I already had my ticket. Everything was carefully planned.

Asiana Airlines staff at the check-in counter in Seoul are notoriously strict about checking to see that passengers have proper papers, stamps, or passports for Japan, since many Koreans and other nationals end up being thrown out of Japan back to Korea. After checking my passport, and seeing several previous stamps for entry into Japan, they let me board the 9 am flight to Tokyo.

The immigration officer at Narita, however, didn’t even look through the pages of my Canadian passport. While taking my fingerprints, he saw my name pop up on a list on his computer. He marked a paper and gave my passport to another officer.

“Come with me,” he said, and I did.

He led me to an open room just to the left of people standing in the immigration line. They sat me down, and made me wait about 10 minutes, while they dealt with an African-American couple with three kids. Tired after 3 hours sleep overnight in Seoul, I nodded off.

Officers apparently didn’t like that, and they woke me up. With uncombed hair, an unshaven face, and tired red eyes, they perhaps thought I was drunk or high, though I wasn’t. (In fact, I’m known among friends for growing and cooking my own organic food and being against drugs and chemicals.)

They insisted we do an “interview” in a private room. When I asked why, they said, “for your privacy.”

“I’m happy to answer your questions here,” I said.

This angered them. “You must go to the interview room.”

I just sat there, staring ahead, too tired to deal with this. I just wanted to go home and sleep.

I wondered what was going on. I first had a work visa for Japan in 1989, and my last renewal began in 2008. I have never overstayed, and never broken laws in Japan. I always complied with the orders of the immigration department. I have travelled in more than 90 countries, and never been denied entry anywhere. As a freelance journalist in post-meltdown Japan, however, I was taking risks more than most foreigners. I wondered if I was being blacklisted due to my critical coverage of TEPCO, Japan Tobacco, Olympus, JAL, the yakuza, fascists, and state neglect of tsunami survivors and nuclear refugees.

Or was it my red eyes, my somewhat rough appearance?

The officers gathered around me. Sensing something amiss, I asked for a witness and a translator, to make sure they couldn’t confuse me with legal jargon in Japanese. An employee of Asiana Airlines came to witness part of the “interview”, but left half way through. The immigration officers provided a translator — assigned by immigration.

She turned out to be the interpreter from hell.

“Hi, what’s your name?” I asked, introducing myself to her.

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” she snapped at me, like I was some hardened criminal. She was unusually tall for a Japanese woman, perhaps my height (182 cm). She looked kick-ass athletic, with short hair and a fierce glare you wouldn’t see from most Office Ladies in Japan. Her uniform said simply “Security”.

She was backed up by four uniformed immigration officials, wearing tags with numbers, not names. Another tough-looking woman, whose hairstyle reminded me of Nadeshiko Japan soccer players, seethed in rage at me.

Their hostility surprised me. As many tourists and expats know, most Japanese are incredibly sincere, kind-hearted, generous people, who have a great respect for foreigners. Thousands of people host foreigners for “home-stays”. Rural Japan is probably the best place to hitchhike in the world. Regional government offices go out of their way to host foreigners. In Furano, Hokkaido, friendly Japanese locals volunteer to guide foreign skiers around the slopes for free.

Even jaded expats who accuse civil servants of being lazy or useless in Japan will at least agree that they are polite and civilized in most cases. Most civil servants, including immigration officers, have university degrees and families to feed at home. They tend to work long hours in dingy offices built during Japan’s boom in the 70s and 80s. They themselves are subject to humiliation and bullying at work, and they must follow an archaic set of rules, bent on repelling foreigners, that dates back to the centuries when Japan was a “sa-koku“, closed to the outside world.

But these immigration officers — the first people who meet foreigners upon arrival in Japan — came off as unusually racist, paranoid, and unfair. Though it’s their job to interview foreigners all day, they barely speak English.

This hostile attitude toward foreigners is not official policy. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has taken measures to open up Japan to foreigners since winning the 2009 election. DPJ cabinet members often speak to the foreign press at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, which has also become popular with Japanese freelancers shunned by Japan’s kisha club system. The Japan National Tourist Organization has hosted international tourism conferences as part of their Yokoso Japan tourism campaign. Many regional state agencies beg foreigners to come to their locales to jump-start the economy and invigorate society. The Immigration Bureau has recently announced significant changes regarding foreign ID cards and other issues.

But the actions of immigration officers and guards at Narita raise the question of whether Narita is a state within a state, or a fiefdom beyond the purview of elected lawmakers. By all accounts, they are not as welcoming as elsewhere in Asia. In South Korea, they stamp you in, and don’t even check your luggage. In Vietnam, they ask foreigners to help build their country. In Thailand, they smile at you; one female officer once sang to me upon entry (as I noted in my travel novel Siamese Dreams).

At Narita, the customs and immigration process seems unnecessarily dehumanized.  Immigration officers wear tags with numbers, not names.

An officer wearing tag C241 had a Yokoso Japan (“Welcome Japan”) badge on his uniform. But he clearly did not welcome me to Japan.  At one moment he seemed like a deranged o-taku lacking in the niceties of human relations. Another moment, he was laughing and shaking my hand. Then he threatened me. “If you say something untrue, you will be in trouble,” he said, shifting around in his chair.

His questions, through the biased interpreter, were impossible to answer. The conversation went like this:

Q: “How much money do you have in your wallet?”

A: “I don’t know. Maybe 20 or 30,000 yen.”

Q: “It’s not enough!”

A: “Well, I have credit cards and bank cards. I can just use the ATM machines here.”

He wrote down something to the effect of “insufficient funds.”

Q: “What are the names of the hotels where you stayed in April in the disaster zone? What are the names of people you met in Fukushima?”

A: “Well, I stayed at many places, I met hundreds of people.”

Q: “What are their names?”

A: “Well, there are so many.”

Q: “You are refusing to answer the question! You must say exactly, in detail.”

(Before I could answer, next question.)

Q: “What were you doing in May 2010? Who did you meet then?”

A: “That was a long time ago. Let me think for a moment.”

The interpreter butted in: “See, you are refusing to answer. You are lying.”

The “interpreter”, biased toward her colleagues in the immigration department, mistranslated my answers, and repeatedly accused me of making unclear statements. I understood enough of their conversation in Japanese to realize she totally got my story wrong.

Without hesitation, he wrote on a document: “No proof. Entry denied.”

“But I do have proof,” I said.

He refused to acknowledge it. “You must sign here. You cannot refuse.”

He showed me a document in legalese that even most Japanese couldn’t understand. With blurry eyes on 3-hours sleep, I tried to make sense of it.

“But I would like to consult a lawyer or embassy staff first,” I said.

“You have no choice. You either leave the country immediately, or you go to the detention facility, and you must pay a lot of money for that. You must sign here.”

“I have the right to a lawyer.”

“You have no right. This is Japan.”

“I live in Japan. I know about the laws and the constitution,” I said. I reminded him of his “Yokoso Japan” badge, and about the government’s policy of welcoming foreigners.

“You must sign here. It is a rule.”

When I refused to sign his falsely-determined expulsion order, he gave me another document, a “right to appeal” to the Minister of Justice.

“You should sign here, immediately,” he said. I looked over the document. It said I had three days to make an appeal.

“How long will it take for the Minister of Justice to reply? It’s a Friday afternoon on a long weekend over Christmas. What if he’s out of the country until after the New Year holiday?”

“I cannot say,” he said arrogantly.

“I’m going to call my embassy,” I said.

He laughed at me and bolted out of the room. I tried to make a mobile phone call but there was no signal in the room. I wandered into other rooms, hoping for a signal that didn’t appear.

Other officers accosted me. “Are you refusing to sign?”

“My answer is not yes or no. I don’t understand what’s going on. I need to consult my embassy or my lawyer before I make a decision.”

“You have no choice,” they snarled. “You should sign it.”

For about four hours, I sat in limbo, unable to properly communicate with the outside world. Hungry and tired, I couldn’t think clearly. Various people in various uniforms shoved various documents in my face for me to sign. I simply said “wait” to everything and zoned out into a world of denial that this nightmare wasn’t happening.

But it was happening. At about 4 pm, the security guards came to take me away. The immigration officers called them keibis — “KBs” — a sort of private squad subcontracted by airlines to do their dirty work.

I thought their uniforms said “gas”. Two KB’s led me out of the immigration area like a criminal, and into the general population milling around Narita terminal one. Seeing the familiar “limousine bus” counter and the “information desk” where I liked to collect maps, I thought of running to freedom. But without a passport, I wouldn’t get far. The airport was a maximum security prison, loaded with armed men, checkpoints, and no chance of escape. I was in jail. The travellers walking by me — going somewhere, coming from somewhere, meeting someone — had no idea about the human rights abuses going on directly in front of them. One foreigner caught my eye and sensed something was wrong. “Dude, I hope you are going to be alright,” he said, worried. “I wish I could help you.”

I finally got a call out, to a friend who immediately contacted an emergency number at foreign affairs in Ottawa, who then relayed a message to an embassy employee in Tokyo on duty after office closing hours. It was Friday, a national holiday to celebrate the Emperor’s Birthday, on a long weekend over Christmas. This was my last chance to get help.

I could only speak for a few minutes before the cellular signal disappeared, as the KBs led me through security corridors behind the scenes at Narita.

The KBs, two older men probably in their 60s or 70s, were like dogs barking at my heels. They were constantly shaking me down for money. They demanded 28,000 yen as a “service fee” for taking me to buy rice balls and cold noodles at the convenience store.

What is going on here, I wondered. I started to get worried when they took me deep into a cold tunnel below the airport. Since I could understand their Japanese, they spoke to each other in an Asian language I didn’t recognize, though I’ve been in almost every country in Asia.

Away from ordinary travellers, they got more aggressive with demands of now 30,000 yen for a “hotel” fee. I was feeling threatened. (I would later find Amnesty International accounts of rogue guards working for the airlines beating up airline customers in the tunnel until they paid up.)

Luckily, I spotted three police officers on patrol in the tunnel. “Onegai! Onegai!” I called out for help, waving my hands in the air like a drowning swimmer. They rushed over. Seeing a foreigner being led away by two men, they sensed something sinister — an abduction perhaps? — and called in another 10 officers.

I was surprised by this show of force. Now the Good Guys were on my side. (As a reporter, I often work alongside cops and soldiers, and my best friends and relatives work in those professions.) When I explained what was going on, the policemen scolded the KBs and treated them, not me, like criminals. I got the sense the policemen suspected these guys were kidnapping me, until the KBs showed them a detention order.

The officers looked at each other, shaking their heads with a look of “shoganai“, it can’t be helped. “We’re sorry, you have to go with them,” a senior police officer said. “Phone coverage is bad down here anyways. Don’t worry, trust us. You’ll be able to make more phone calls from the hotel.”

Well, at least I’m going to a hotel, I thought. I’ll make some phone calls there, go online, and ask higher-ranking officials to help me out of this big misunderstanding.

But the KBs took me in a van, also marked “Gas”, deeper into the Narita complex. We walked through a confusing maze, and into a room.

As soon as the door locked behind me, I knew I had been fooled.



The “hotel” was in fact a jail. A prison, a detention facility, a dungeon. No matter what they call it, the result is the same. They own you. You are powerless.

A separate set of guards stationed inside the jail confiscated my bags. I reached to make a phone call. They grabbed my phone and confiscated it. They took everything — cash, pens — out of my pockets, and patted me down.

“The police just told me I could make a call from here,” I said in Japanese.

A guard told me flat out in Japanese: “You have no rights here.”

A sign, in English, Japanese, and other languages, lists phone numbers for United Nations organizations dedicated to helping victims of state brutality.

“It says right here that I can call these numbers.”

“No you can’t.”

“Can I have a newspaper to read?”


“Can I have a pen to write with?”

“No,” they said. “People use it to kill themselves.”

“You mean people have committed suicide here?”

“Yes,” said one guard. He was about to tell stories, when another guard shut him up.

That scared me. What merciless cruelty could happen down here to force someone to lose all hope? What abusive action could occur down here in these locked rooms, with nobody to hear you scream?

Stripped of rights and physical powers, I quickly realized that my only weapon in self-defence was my mind. I would simply have to think my way out of this place.

Instead of fighting them, I decided I would at least present the appearance of cooperating with them. Recalling my lessons 20 years ago in an Aikido club, where off-duty cops and local tough guys used to throw me to the mat, I acted like a model samurai, a noble prisoner. I bowed deeply. I grunted out terms of agreement: “Hai, hai hai. Wakarimashita.” I spoke in the most polite and deferential Japanese I could muster.

I hoped it would spin a web of diplomatic immunity around me. I told them I was a “famous journalist”, that I often “hung out with Japanese cabinet ministers”, and that people in Japan and other countries “know I’m here right now, and they are all worried about me.” I dropped the names of various Japanese politicians and public figures, until it occurred to me that these guards might not even be Japanese!

They didn’t say much at all. I was just another prisoner, one of thousands to fall through the Trap Door. They gave me a paper to sign. It said, in effect, “For your safety, we will lock you and your luggage in your room from 11 pm to 6 am.” Seeing “for your safety”, I thought it was a good idea, and I signed.

But they, in fact, kept my luggage in a separate room. I had no access to it, without their permission.

From the entrance room, which had a desk and a couch, they led me into a locked off area with at least two sleeping cells — one to the left, another straight ahead — with perhaps a third behind another door to the right. The cell to the left has three small mats for sleeping, each with a useless tiny pillow.

A sign in a small toilet room to the far left says, in several languages, “do not wash clothes or bath in this room.” It seemed the people had defied the order, because the floor showed signs of warping from spilled water.

Another sign said: “This facility is provided by requests of airline companies. Immigration office doesn’t require the expenses about the usage of this facility.”

Another said: “Attention. In case you damage the accommodations in this facility with intention, it is your responsibility to pay all for the compensation.”

I could find no evidence of previous damage, other than the warped bathroom floor. A previous “guest” had left a Turkish coin on the bench. I wondered what happened to this person. Was he free, or was he deeper inside the gulag?

The room was cold, with no windows. A tiny flat screen TV, high in a corner, offered only two channels “NHK general” and “NHK educational.” I had done work for NHK dating back to 1994, and knew all about their shadows behind the scenes. This is true punishment, I thought.

I sat for a long time trying to calm down and regain my wits.

Awhile later, I heard a ruckus in the entrance room. It was “Jim”, and he was putting up a fight.

“What is this? I just gave you 30,000 yen for a hotel. This isn’t a hotel. This is a jail!”

They were rougher with Jim than with me.

They ordered Jim to take off his suit and tie, and the rest of his clothes. They strip-searched him, feeling everywhere. “Oh, come on! Don’t put your finger in my ass!” he pleaded, but they did.

They found nothing on him. He put his clothes back on, and they led him to the room next to mine, and locked it.

I couldn’t even spend the night talking with Jim. There was nothing to do but think or sleep. I couldn’t get a paper or pen to write with, and I had nothing to read.

Laying under thin blankets, using my parka (down jacket) as a pillow, I stared at the ceiling and walls. It was absolutely impossible to escape. I might as well have been a serial killer in solitary confinement. Two compartments in the ceiling, which I hoped might lead to piping or crawl space, were locked. There were no windows.

Somebody had put a decoration of a northern star on the ceiling, to remind us of the wonder of a starry night. The wall to my right had a portrait of a green tree and a blue sky, to remind us of the joy of freedom — or to rub in our lack of it.

Later that night, I was ordered into the common room. A man, probably in his 50s, was waiting to see me. His tie said “immigration.” He looked like a normal Japanese salaryman, compared with the other twisted characters around us, except for one thing. His knuckles were bruised and deformed. It reminded me of the guys at our martial arts dojo who used to punch trees to build up their toughness. I wondered if he was coming to beat a confession out of me.

But he was warm and compassionate. He tried his best in English and Japanese to explain what was happening. He said, to my surprise, that the other officers were “idiots”. He said they had no business putting foreigners — tourists or expats — in jail like this. “It is a shame for Japan,” he said. “Embarrassing.”

He probably sensed my confusion and fragility, and was trying to cheer me up and keep me from suicide. He reminded me of the 99 percent of Japanese, who are decent, law-abiding, respectful people who don’t mind sharing their country with foreigners — totally unlike those who monopolize real power in their fiefdoms.

After talking to me, he went out for a few minutes and came back to give me more documents to sign. One was titled “Waiving the Right to Appeal”, meaning, “I allow you to kick me out of the country.” The other was an “appeal form”. It said I had three days to appeal to “the Minister of Justice.” This at least gave me hope that someone would recognize their mistake, and let me go home to sleep in my bedroom with windows.

He gave me extra papers to write on. He told me to make a “very strong argument” against the officers, the translator, Asiana Airlines, and the whole decrepit process. He was talking like any normal human being would in the face of such vulgarity. He gave me hope that somebody in “the system” cared about justice. After talking to him, I half believed I would win the appeal, walk into freedom, and spend my holidays skiing in Hokkaido and Tohoku as planned.

After he left, the guards granted me a privilege — the right to take a shower. They even turned on the water and gave me a tiny hand towel to dry my 6-foot, 180-pound body.

I began to feel sorry for the guards on the graveyard shift. One guard had a hideous hacking cough; he sounded like he was going to die in the morning. Another man, perhaps in his 70s, with suffering etched across the wrinkles of his face, seemed hopelessly forlorn and lonely, like he had spent a lifetime in jail. They both told me, “We cannot see our families tonight also.” Nobody ever really wanted a job like this, I thought. Perhaps they had no choice. Maybe they had been let out of prison, on condition of working here.

My show of respect, and polite language toward them, was reciprocated. They let me make a phone call. They gave me a form to fill out — this is Japan, after all — listing the nationality, name, phone number and relation of that person.

I tried to milk it. While pretending to check my phone messages (technically not a phone call), I sent messages on Facebook. I wrote short, and sent quickly, in case they caught me: (In jail now … Narita … No rights … Innocent … Help me.)

Then I called my partner, getting only her answering machine. She was at a bonenkai (“forget the year party) with her band, drunk out of their heads. I left a message, saying in effect, “I’m in jail, but don’t worry.” I tried calling others but got only answering machines. It was a Friday night on a long Christmas weekend. Nobody was coming to rescue me. The guards looked at me — your phone privilege is up.

I went back to my cell dejected. I lay under blankets in my winter clothes, tormented. I chased away dark thoughts — suicide, protest, escape — from my mind. I cried for myself, and for the tortured souls of the previous tenants.

I imagined less-fortunate people, from less-powerful countries, dying here. I could feel their desperation, their depression, their shame and outrage. I thought of famous prisoners in history. The great writer, Dostoevsky, sentenced to death, standing outside in the freezing Siberian winter waiting to be executed by the firing squad. I though of Solzhenitsyn, finding the courage to write about his experiences in the Gulag Archipelago. I thought about the great political leaders, such as Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. Nelson Mandela became my hero. I prayed to him like a god of all prisoners. He told me — not in a mysterious voice but through the powers of his actions — to stay positive, to never lose hope.

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I had never paid much attention to articles about mistreatment of foreigners in Japan. I somehow considered myself untouchable, since I always had work visas dating back to 1989. I had learned to speak and read Japanese during home-stays in the Osaka area in 1989. I worked on rice farms and sugar cane plantations. I taught hundreds of ESL students, and kids with disabilities. I volunteered after the disasters of 1995 and March 11, 2011. As a travel journalist, I was often treated to the finest hotels, restaurants and ski resorts. Thanks to friends in bands, I lived a life of back-stage passes, hanging out with the leading rock stars and actors in Japan, who sometimes came to our house for dinner parties. Designers gave me free clothing, and talented friends gave me their CDs and books. I saw the best side of Japan, and it was easy to ignore the worst side.

Many other foreign writers, meanwhile, have been courageously exposing the injustices in Japan’s archaic legal system.

Debito Arudou, in his Japan Times articles, cites many cases of foreigners treated unfairly.  In one case, the Supreme Court has denied bail to a Swiss woman, incarcerated since 2006, though she has twice been exonerated in court of drug smuggling charges. “For foreign defendants, all a public prosecutor has to do is file an appeal and it will void any court acquittal,” says Arudou. “If you’re a foreigner facing Japan’s criminal justice system, you can be questioned without probable cause on the street by police, apprehended for ‘voluntary questioning’ in a foreign language, incarcerated perpetually while in litigation, and treated differently in jurisprudence than a Japanese.”

He cites a study by Professor David T. Johnson which found that 10 percent of all trials in Japan in the year 2000 had foreign defendants, though non-Japanese residents back then were 1.3 percent of Japan’s population. In other words, foreigners are 10 times more likely to appear in court than Japanese nationals. 

“This is a land with a policing regime instead of an immigration policy,” says Arudou. Under the Foreign Registry Law (Article 18) only foreigners — and not Japanese — can be arrested, fined up to ¥200,000 and incarcerated for up to a year simply for not carrying their passport or “alien registration card”, a severe penalty for something “as easy to misplace as a library card or car keys,” he says.

Even famous gaijin are not immune. Peter Barakan is one of the most respected and erudite foreigners in Japan, and the host of many thoughtful Japanese-language TV shows delving into Japanese culture. He is a model example of a foreigner successfully integrating into the culture. In 2007, a masked man assaulted him with pepper spray. Police tracked down the getaway van, found the driver, and noticed mace cans in the back. But they let the suspect go. Barakan later told Debito that police did nothing about the case. The assailant was Japanese, and Barakan was a foreigner.


In May, not long after thousands of foreigners had fled Japan due to radiation and aftershock fears, British comedian Russell Brand dared to join his pop-star wife Katy Perry during her Japan tour. Japan detained and deported Brand because of his previous arrests due to problems with drugs and alcohol in other countries 10 years earlier. “Planning escape from Japanese custody. It’s bloody hard to dig a tunnel with a chopstick,” Brand wrote on his Twitter page. “Stockholm syndrome kicking in. Just asked my guard out for (vegetarian) sushi.”

Perry’s tweets were more serious. “It was for priors from over 10 years ago!… But of COURSE I (love) my Japanese fans and the show must go on, no matter the daily aftershocks or husband kidnappings!”

He was the latest in a long line of celebrity deportees.

World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer was detained upon arrival in Narita in 2004. According to Canadian journalist Jon Bosnitch, who was working with NHK in Japan at that time, the Bush Administration told Japanese authorities that it had “revoked” Fischer’s passport. The US wanted to bring Fischer to trial in the United States for playing in a World Chess Championship rematch in Yugoslavia in 1992 in alleged violation of U.S. presidential sanctions against economic activity with Yugoslavia. Japanese immigration authorities jailed Fischer at Narita Airport detention center for 16 days, and then sent him to a long-term detention center pending deportation to the United States. Bosnitch was allowed to visit Fischer in the Narita jail, and he set up the “Committee to Free Bobby Fischer”.  After 9 months of legal wrangling, Fischer renounced his United States citizenship, obtained full Icelandic citizenship, and was allowed to leave Japan for Iceland. He died 3 years later at age 64.

In September 2010, Narita’s immigration officers detained Paris Hilton and forced her to leave because she was on probation for drug use charges. Japanese event organizers lost money because they had to cancel a fashion event that would have employed many young Japanese.

Velvet Revolver had to cancel a tour of Japan because of fears that Scott Weiland, also lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots, would be detained due to his week in a California jail on a conviction of drunk driving — a common past-time in rural Japan.

Way back In 1980, another band wanted to come to repay the love of Japanese fans. In the dead winter of January 16, a musician came through customs with 7.7 ounces (218 grams) of cannabis in his luggage, which he said was only for personal use. He was arrested and jailed in the Tokyo Narcotics Detention Center. The government wondered what to do. The foreigner had played concerts in Japan in 1966, but had been denied a visa in 1975, due to two convictions of cannabis possession in Europe. Public figures in Japan demanded he face trial for drug smuggling, meaning potentially 7 years in jail, thanks to Japan’s 99 percent conviction rate. To the dismay of fans gathered outside the jail, the band canceled the tour, and other members hurried out of Japan. After 10 days in jail, the musician was deported. They told him never come back to Japan. His name: Paul McCartney, one of the Fab Four Beatles, probably the greatest living songwriter in the world — and a foreigner.


Abubakar Awadu Suraj, a longtime resident of Japan, didn’t have the benefit of worldwide press attention and screaming fans on the day that he was deported — and murdered — while in custody at Narita airport in March 2010. 

According to, Mr. Suraj, known as “Mac Barry”, was the son of a royal tribal family in northern Ghana. He had come to Japan on a tourist visa in May 1988 — about 7 months before I first arrived in Osaka. Like me and many other foreigners still in Japan, he came with the hope of learning Japanese and building a new life in Japan. He met a Japanese woman not long after arriving, and spent the next 22 years with her.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, famous for impersonating Elvis, announced a crackdown on “overstayers” who, in fact, had been building Japan’s economy and paying taxes for civil servants now charged with detaining them. 

Immigration officials had the authority to detain — indefinitely — any foreigner suspected of violating Immigration Control Law. Without a strong system of checks and balances, immigration officials can act arbitrarily, without having to explain their actions.

According to an article by David McNeill and Sumie Kawakami in the Japan Times, immigration officials detained him in May 2009 for “overstaying” his tourist visa. After being hidden away in the gulag for about 10 months, immigration officers told him, at 9:15 am on March 22, 2010, that he was being deported immediately. He was confirmed dead 6 hours later.

According to court documents obtained by the Japan Times, a posse of nine immigration officers took him from a Yokohama jail to the airport.

They spent two hours in a waiting room at the airport. They cuffed his hands and ankles, tied a rope around his waist, and put him in a vehicle. Since he was protesting his deportation, officers allege that they restrained him face down. At 2:20 pm, they carried him onto Egypt Airlines flight MS096 bound for Cairo. They forced him to sit in an aisle seat on the back row. They gagged him with a towel, though it was illegal under Japanese law. One officer allegedly pushed his neck to force Suraj forward. By 2:35 pm, Suraj was motionless.

Egypt Air flight attendants, trying to get other passengers aboard, asked the officers to move Suraj to a window seat, but Suraj was unresponsive. The officers said he was just pretending to be sick. At 2:50 pm, the cabin crew ordered the officers to take Suraj off the plane. Nobody tried to resuscitate him. They carried him off the plane and into a vehicle. More than 40 minutes later, at 3:31 pm, a doctor at the airport clinic confirmed he was dead.

His wife, who identified his body a day later, didn’t even know that her husband had been deported.

Immigration officials didn’t tell her why he died. They didn’t give her his body for three months. They claimed they did not videotape the incident.

Suraj’s widow won a lawsuit against the Justice Ministry, which oversees immigration issues, and won the right to see documents related to his death. The ministry finally released the documents in May, more than a year after his death.

The trial into his murder is ongoing. Japanese media have largely ignored the court case. Foreign reporters have been denied access.

An article in accused the immigration department of using Mr. Suraj to “fill their quota of ‘catches’ every month,” and “forging” an International Travel Certificate to allow him to travel without knowledge of the Ghanaian Embassy in Japan. “All his travelling and other documents are in the hands of the Japanese Immigration and but for the help of the Egyptian Air Pilot and Mac Barry Japanese wife, nobody would have known about his death.” The site says that Africans in Tokyo went on a peaceful demonstration against the Japanese government, and the Ghanaian Embassy turned down the government’s letter of apology.

The site quotes Ayiba Larry, the head of Mr. Suraj’s family, saying Mr. Suraj was destined to inherit a royal title in the Chamba-Banumba traditional area. “His death is a total loss to our family and our community as a whole,” he said. “We also want the Japanese government to compensate us even though no amount of money can replace our beloved Awudu Samad Abubakar.”

The Japan Times notes that court documents reported “abrasions to his face, internal bleeding of muscles on the neck, back, abdomen and upper arm, along with leakage of blood around the eyes, blood congestion in some organs, and dark red blood in the heart.” But the report concluded that the cause of his death is “unknown.”

The Japan Times quotes Sosuke Seki, a lawyer involved in the case, says the court documents point to illegal and excessive use of restraints. “Immigration officers are supposed to videotape deportation procedures when restraints are applied, but the officer in charge of Suraj’s deportation specifically ordered videotaping to be stopped when he was carried into the aircraft.”

Junpei Yamamura, a doctor who often visits detainees in jail, was called in to examine the body of Suraj.

“The police were obviously trying to find weakness in Suraj’s health when they came to ask about him,” Yamamura told the Japan Times. “They visited me four times about the case, despite the fact I repeatedly told them that there was nothing wrong with him.”

Yamamura also examined his body after it was returned to his wife. He says a cut on Suraj’s cheek indicated the gag was too tight. “This is criminal abuse of power,” says Yamamura.

Chiba Police began an investigation into possible murder, and sent the case to the Chiba District Public Prosecutors’ Office in December 2010. Police referred at least nine immigration officers to Chiba prosecutors in December, but they have not been indicted. The criminal charges against the officers are still up in the air.

The widow of Mr. Suraj, and his mother from Ghana, filed a suit in August demanding compensation from the government and nine immigration officers who were involved in his deportation. The widow, who has requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, told the Japan Times that she’s afraid the case will be forgotten. “Nothing will bring him back, but I just need to know why he died.”


The Economist reported on August 5, 2011:

“The head of the immigration bureau left out unflattering facts about his officers’ conduct when he was called to the Diet (parliament) to explain what happened. A criminal case was filed as well, naming the officers involved, but it has barely budged on the court’s docket. The ministry of justice looks hampered by rather obvious conflicts of interest. The ministry’s agents hold the evidence of wrongdoing that their colleagues are alleged to have committed. The ministry stands responsible for penalising officials within its own ranks,” the Economist wrote. “Every day that the officers who were present when Mr Suraj died don their uniforms and walk into their offices is another day in which the Japanese state looks complicit in a cover-up.”

A month after the death, Suraj’s lawyer and his widow gave a press briefing at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, an organization which claims that foreigners are routinely kept in appalling conditions that lack judicial oversight. They talked about previous incidents. A month earlier, a South Korean man was found dead by hanging at a detention centre. A young Brazilian had committed suicide in Ibaragi. About 70 detainees went on a hunger strike at another detention centre.

The trial began in November.

The Yomiuri newspaper reported on November 3 that “it appears the Chiba District Public Prosecutor’s Office has concluded that such action was legitimate in the line of duty.”



Amnesty International, which was understandably busy investigating abuses in Myanmar, Iraq and other dictatorships back then, did not even know about the Narita jails until the year 2000, when they heard about two aspiring young travelers from Tunisia named Thameur Hichem, 20, and Thameur Mouez, 22.

Brimming with the spirit of the new millennium, they had arrived on June 20, 2000 by Turkish Airlines. Amnesty reported that they “were carrying legal documentation to visit Japan, but were arbitrarily denied entry and detained in the LPFs in Narita.” 

Authorities handed them to guards subcontracted by Turkish Airilnes. The guards had to act fast. Their security company no longer had the contract to guard detainees inside the Gaijin Tank, according to Amnesty. But they still had the job of escorting them in a van through the tunnel, giving them a chance to shake them down for cash.

Three guards took the Tunisian men into the parking lot of Terminal 1. One guard hit and kicked Hichem on his left leg, and smashed his head several times against a wall. Another guard pinned his shoulders to the ground and took US$300 from his pocket.

Mouez was taken separately and beaten until he paid US$300.

They then dumped Hichem and Mouez in the Gaijin Tank. The wounded men demanded medical attention, but were ignored. They could not call police. They could only call their parents after two days in jail. They were detained for five days in a small windowless room until they were deported on June 25, 2000.

Nobody investigated the guard’s illegal actions, says Amnesty. “The lack of prompt and impartial investigation by the authorities into such allegations of ill-treatment contravenes Article 12 of the Convention against Torture.”

Amnesty says immigration officials told them they had been “satisfied with the reply from the security agency and that the company had done no wrong.”

The Tunisians, notes Amnesty, “are among thousands of foreign nationals who are detained in the LPF at Narita Airport every year, prior to being deported on the next available flight of the same air carrier on which they had flown into Japan.”

Amnesty’s subsequent reports detailed a history of abuses dating back to at least 1996. “Foreign nationals entering Japan may be at risk of ill-treatment by immigration authorities during interrogations at Special Examination Rooms and by private security guards in detention facilities located at Japanese ports of entry, including Narita Airport,” said Amnesty in a report. “Amnesty International has found evidence of ill-treatment of detainees at Landing Prevention Facilities. It forms part of a pattern of arbitrary denial of entry to foreign nationals and systematic detention of those denied entry – a process which falls short of international standards. The LPFs have detention cells that have no windows and there have been reports of foreign nationals being detained in these cells for several weeks without sunlight and not being allowed to exercise.”

Amnesty cited reports of immigration officials, during “interrogations at Special Examination Rooms”, forcing foreigners — including Westerners — to sign documents they don’t understand, providing interpreters biased against them during interrogations, holding them incommunicado, and denying them the right to contact embassies, lawyers or family. These reports, dating back to the year 2000, are consistent with this reporter’s observations over Christmas 2011, and reports from other Westerners expelled from Japan.

“Immigration officers have, according to information received from security staff, violated the Japanese immigration inspection procedure, international human rights standards and refugee law,” reported Amnesty. “Cases have been reported when people who have lodged an asylum claim, have been verbally abused and physically beaten in the ‘special inspection room’.”

Amnesty says the airlines are bound to provide facilities to house people denied entry to Japan. “The airlines contract the work over several companies who provide ‘security escorts’ to people from immigration to the Landing Prevention Facility where they are handed over to staff of another security company who operate the facility.”

Amnesty cited cases of security guards who extort money on a daily basis by stripping naked, robbing, beating or harassing foreign airline passengers into paying “service fees”.

Amnesty says that four security staff members told them about serious abuses by guards and immigration officers. “The security companies also extort money from the detainees in order for them to be provided with ‘good service’ or to allegedly allow them into the country. When the detainees have refused payment, security staff have been known to go through the detainees’ belongings and strip them naked. Detainees who have not understood the payment demands and refuse to pay are beaten.”

“Amnesty International fears that such serious human rights violations take place because there is no government monitoring mechanism to check the activities of private security staff. Security staff have told Amnesty International that because there is no government monitoring mechanism they were not accountable for their actions. Even if the detainees complained about their ill-treatment and extortion of money, they are deported in a matter of days and their complaints are ignored.

The cases are too numerous to mention, and too frequent to ignore.

In February 1996, a Danish national was detained in the LPF, or what was then described as a “transit detention centre.” He was forced to pay US$260. He was refused entry because the inspector said his passport was fake. He was badly beaten — bruises on his left eye and cheek — when he refused to sign documents that stated that he was trying to enter Japan illegally. Other immigration officers didn’t intervene to stop it. He later stated that he witnessed officers physically abusing other detainees. He was forced to leave Japan without being able to contact the Danish embassy. The Japanese authorities stamped “false” on every page of his passport in red ink. He was sent to Malaysia, where he spent eleven days in a crowded cell in Kuala Lumpur Airport, before being finally sent back to Denmark.

In March 1997, a Pakistani man said immigration officers pushed him and yelled at him to sign a “no-objection” document. When he refused to sign the document, immigration officials threatened him with beatings. He spent at least a month in the LPF, with no sunlight or exercise. He said he felt sick when five Chinese detainees smoked cigarettes. He was not allowed to contact Amnesty or the UNHCR. Though he’s Muslim, he was served pork. He claims he saw a Chinese detainee who, for complaining too loudly, was kicked by four or five guards and hit on his head with a water jug so badly that his head was bleeding. As there were no medical facilities in the LPF, the Chinese national was left bleeding for almost three hours before he was taken outside for medical care.

The Pakistani man then spent several months in the East Japan Detention Centre in Ushiku, Ibaraki. Still, he refused to sign a deportation order, and officials later granted him special permission to stay. Shortly after his release in January 1999, he was diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For more than two years after his release, he suffered from lack of sleep, nightmares and acute headaches.

Zia, a Myanmar national belonging to the minority Rohingya community, reached Narita Airport on 29 March 1998. A student activist, he had been interrogated, tortured and detained twice by Myanmar police. Upon landing in Japan, where he thought he was safe, he was interviewed for two or three days by immigration officers with an interpreter, a Japanese national, who was not fluent in the Burmese language, and who was unable to interpret adequately. He spent more than three weeks in the windowless Gaijin Tank. The food was horrible. He had to pay $812 for the detention, more than a month’s rent for many ESL teachers enjoying freedom in Chiba, and more than a year’s wage in Myanmar. 

“Zia likened the LPF to a tomb,” reports Amnesty. There was no fresh air, and his room was always locked. He had headaches and fever but was denied medicine. Coming from a tropical culture where people bath 2 or 3 times a day, he was allowed to take a ten-minute shower once a week.

He saw guards – initially two, then four – strip-search a South Asian man. The guards then kicked the man when he maintained that he had no money. He was beaten till he paid the cash. In another instance, a Guinean man was deprived of food for five days until he paid up.

Zia also claimed that a letter that he had written to a Member of Parliament in Japan was censored. They didn’t like a couple of sentences asking why he was treated ”like a criminal.”

“When an Amnesty International delegation met Zia in December 2000, he looked pale, and he was shivering despite wearing several layers of clothing. He also had visible changes in his moods and he did not have a long attention span. At times, he appeared animated and then he would seem to switch off completely.”

Zia was later transferred to the East Japan Immigration Centre. After seven months of hell, he was provisionally released. He also appears to suffer from PTSD.

Johanna Schmidt from Austria was allegedly not allowed, despite repeated requests, to contact the Austrian embassy in Tokyo during her three-day detention at the LPF in July 2000. She was finally allowed to contact the Austrian embassy only hours before her deportation from Japan.

A Chinese man, denied entry on August 1, 2000, claimed that an immigration officer lost his temper and beat him, causing bruises and a serious injury to his head.

In December 2000, Kamal, a 16-year old Kurd, verbally abused and fearing beatings, signed a document, against his will, that waived his rights to appeal. “Immigration officials had denied that children were detained at the LPF when the Amnesty International delegation met with them in December of that year.” The teenager claimed there was no breakfast and the first meal of the day was delivered in the afternoon.

In February 2001, immigration officials called in a Turkish national to translate for two Kurds seeking asylum from Turkey. The Kurds were denied entry, and detained. One of the Kurds, Hasan Cikan, said he would have been jailed and tortured if sent back to Turkey. He finally received ”Special Permission for Residence”, but his companion was forcibly returned to Turkey.

Amnesty tried to get info out of immigration officers. The officers claimed they were holding seven prisoners on average in the LPF, in four windowless rooms. They allowed an Amnesty delegation to visit a room for women, which was unoccupied at that time. They saw five narrow benches, which doubled up as beds, and large dust-bins. The room was about 10 feet by 8 feet, and only 7 feet high — low enough for taller foreigners to touch standing up straight.  Guards, working 12 hour shifts, manned all other rooms (three in the women’s jail, and four in the men’s. rooms in the men’s facility). The rooms were always locked behind a steel gate. “In cases of emergencies like sickness or fire in the room, detainees had no choice but to bang the door hard to raise alarm and catch the attention of the guards.” Guards could look through a vertical glass window, meaning detainees had no privacy. The guard room was also locked. Detainees’ luggage was kept separately in a room next to the guard room.


Despite requests, the Amnesty delegation was not allowed to meet detainees. “Amnesty International has been informed that two delegations of Japanese Diet (National Assembly) members were also denied access to those detained in the LPF at the time of their visits. The refusal to allow visits by qualified persons to places of detention constitutes a violation of Principle 29 of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment.”



While some state organizations in Japan try to lure wealthy tourists to jumpstart regional economies, other state workers pick foreigners off the street and send them immediately to jail, with no chance to collect valuables or say goodbye to loved ones. These foreigners, often with Japanese families and jobs, simply disappear.

In Ibaraki prefecture about 50 kilometres north of Tokyo, the city of Ushiku, population 81,000, is famous for one of the tallest statues in the world, the 120-meter high Amitabha Buddha. It was built in 1993, when thousands of foreigners were dreaming of Japan as a refuge from their troubles at home. Ushiku, the sister city of Whitehorse, Canada and Orange, Australia, has a lake famous as a setting for stories about the mythical kappa, a reptilian water sprite known for malevolent behaviour such as kidnapping children and drowning people. Migratory birds also love gathering at the lake on stopovers between south and northeast Asia.

These birds enjoy a freedom that human migrants can only dream about, however, while incarcerated for months or years at the nearby East Japan Detention Center.

Most Japanese, and indeed foreign expats, know nothing about this horrific place, where thousands of innocent foreigners become tortured, twisted souls with a lifetime grudge against Japan. 

Shinji Saito, a Catholic priest in Saitama outside Tokyo, often visits the Ushiku detention centre, which can hold 700 prisoners. Japan has two other detention centers of the same size, in Osaka and Nagasaki. 

This is what he told parishioners, according to a church bulletin in 2005:

“I realized, among other things, that almost nobody knows about this jail. The Justice Ministry tries to keep it unknown, but I speak about this matter everywhere in churches. Recently, especially in the Metropolitan area, foreigners are being hunted everywhere they go.”

“There are cases of foreigners being arrested in the train or Filipinos addressing each other in Tagalog going home from mass. There is an Indian priest that is scared because the police often call on him. This is happening everywhere.

Catholic Churches are particularly targeted, because people of various nationalities gather there. Sometimes plain-clothes policemen have attended parties of Peruvian people in the Church taking photos there and Filipinos returning home after the night Christmas mass have also been arrested in the past. Most foreigners arrested, about 20,000 a year, are forcefully sent back home. But some cannot return, because they cannot obtain an air ticket or their lives are in danger in case they go back. Others do not like to go back. They have been working in Japan for many years and their children, born here, only know Japan and the Japanese language. If they were to be sent back they could not possibly find a job and their families would be destroyed.”

“People arrested are immediately sent to jail without time to look for their belongings and apartments,” he said. “Prisoners are separated from their families, men and women are put in different buildings and children are kept in children’s homes.

“The rooms are either 10 persons to a 10 tatami room or 5 persons to a 5 tatami room. There are also narrow single rooms for those unable to be together with others. There is no privacy and all they receive is 5 blankets. They get up at 8:00 AM and have three meals in their rooms — the food is given through a small window in the door — and are allowed to do some exercise for 30 minutes in the playground. During the day, at fixed times, they move to a common room and are allowed to have a shower in the afternoon. At 4:30 PM they have to return to their rooms again. Permission can be obtained to make international calls to their families.

People living in the same room feel sleepy, but they cannot sleep because others are talking. They fight together because of the TV programs they want to see, or the order given to make international phone calls, the space to dry the clothes, the cleaning of toilets, etc. People get sick because of the food and pressures of life in jail.

Due to insomnia and stress, sometimes people become also mentally sick. I knew, for instance, a man mentally unstable who tried several times to hang himself. In the middle of our conversation he will tell me, “I must leave to meet with my daughter,” and no matter his wife will tell him to come to his senses he will reply, out of his mind, “I sleep every evening with my daughter.” I couldn’t stop crying at that. Why such useless suffering?

Some people remain in jail for more than 3 years. In other prisons (with mostly Japanese inmates) there are opportunities to learn jobs or to get some income out of one’s work. In jails for foreigners there is nothing to do. The reason could be that, such people are not supposed to be in Japan and to offer them ‘jobs’ is to recognize their presence here. Those who could get out will, frankly, tell you that they have always lived in anxiety without knowing when could they be able to leave and meet with their families. Many become mentally sick.

The few windows of the jail are of frosted glass and nothing outside can be seen. Is it needed to keep the prisoners as if they were animals in a cage? People in such circumstances usually enjoy only food. This is not the case. The meals are just lunch boxes with fish or meat and since they distribute them to more that 400 persons they are usually cold. There is no consideration at all regarding likes or religious customs.

Visits are always delightful. In order to reach the meeting place prisoners have to go through 7 different doors and gradually their hearts open with hope. The day of a visit is always a special day. Some people meet several prisoners at the same time, but I try to meet them personally. This way privacy can be kept.

Letters are most welcomed. Letters are opened in front of the prisoner to assure him on the content and then immigration checks them and gives them next morning. Sending off letters follows similar requirements. With regard to phone calls prisoners cannot receive them, but only make them.

Each building has only a phone that can be used with telephone cards. Calls are requested with a fixed order and only the international company of KDDI, the most expensive line, can be used.

People who cannot afford to buy a plane ticket try to gather the money from friends or relatives, by making phone calls or writing letters. About 70,000 yen will be required from persons of Asian countries, but in the case of Latin American people it will be double of that. On top of that, the cheapest way will be to go through the USA, but due to new strict immigration rules, transit visas are difficult to get and many Latin Americans have to go around Europe (Madrid) at a very expensive cost.

There are people who apply for refugee status complaining of persecution in their own countries. The result is always negative, no matter how many times they apply. It is well known that Japan does not accept refugees. Last year only 10 people received refugee status. These are the usual figures and they cannot be compared with those of other western countries that accept refugees by the thousands, even now.”

He says it’s hard for poor people to find lawyers, who are busy and demand pay. “Court cases are rare,” he says. “Trials take a lot of time and the time in jail is extended, with practically no hope of success.”

To apply for “provisional release”, they need a guarantor, a place to live and deposit of money, at least 200,000 yen in most cases. They told a Bangladeshi construction worker to pay 2 million yen, an Iranian to pay 3 million yen. After a year in jail, they let the Bangladeshi out after he came up with 1 million yen, and signed a paper to pay the rest later.  “The reasons for provisional release are usually special physical or mental diseases or extremely too long detention. But, the rule is the denial of a release.”


Even after release, their status is still “illegal”, making it hard to get a job or move, since they have to report to immigration once a month.

Most prisoners, however, end up deported. The Japanese officials say they don’t care what happens to them back home.

“Let me tell you how immigration conducted the deportation of one of the 6 Iranians,” he told parishioners. “About 20 guards dressed as riot police came into the common room early morning while everybody was sleeping and held down everyone in the room, targeting the person to be deported. Then, about 6 guards involved in blankets that person and transported him to a different room. There they gave him the expelling order. But, because he behaved violently they took off his clothes leaving him only in his shorts, handcuffed him, put a rod around his wrist and brought him like that by car to Narita. It was in the middle of cold winter. Probably they gave him back his clothes before boarding the plane. All this takes place without informing family members, lawyers or supporters, not even guarantors.”

“Last summer a Pakistani man was also deported. A little later a medical doctor told me the true story. They gave him a medicine to make him daze and put him on a plane. His wife was Japanese and wanted to live in Japan together. One night they gave him the deportation order, but since he resisted violently they gave him a tranquilizer. Early morning they woke him up and giving him a pill, they brought him to the airport where he had more medicine so that he could not realize he was riding on a plane. He was sleepy all the way and when he realized it the plane had arrived at its final destination, Karachi.”

“The presence of foreign people produces violation of human rights and the Ministry of Justice is unaware of that fact. Every time I speak about this issue people tell me, “Well, those persons violated Japanese law, so they should also somehow pay for it.”

“Naturally, some commit crimes but the majority are hard and serious workers. Japan is a difficult place for job seekers and the number of jobless people has increased but these young foreigners take any kind of job Japanese refuse to take. Now they are sustaining Japanese society. Is it right to make them suffer so much psychologically because they overstayed their visas?”


Deaths of prisoners

Prisoners in Japan have died suspiciously while in custody.

On June 20, 1994, Iranian national Arjang Mehrpooran was beaten to death while in custody for a visa violation at the Minami Senju police station.

On August 9, 1997, Mousavi Abarbe Kouh Mir Hossein, an Iranian national, had his neck broken and died while in the custody of the Kita Ward Immigration Detention Center.

In 2001, two Nagoya prison guards reportedly sprayed a high-power water hose at an “unruly” inmate’s anus, resulting in his death the following day. In the outcome of his March 2003 trial, the warden was warned to prevent further abuses by his subordinates.

In 2002, an inmate at Nagoya Prison died after guards, as a disciplinary measure, used leather handcuffs and body belts too tightly clinched.

On March 22, 2010, Abubaka Awudu Suraj, a citizen of Ghana, died while in the custody of the Japanese Immigration Bureau at Narita Airport while being deported from Japan.

Up to July 2011, Japan has not signed nor ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


While Japan often holds detainees for months, Canadian border officials tend to hold detainees for 28 days on average, a report says., a website in Canada, has reported on Canada’s own version of a Gaijin Gulag. Between 2006 and 2011, the Canadian Border Services Agency deported 83,382 men, women and children. They also detained more than 72,000 asylum seekers from 2004-2010. CBSA concludes that “it is clear that the need to detain and remove foreign nationals will continue,” the site said. (…

The website reported that detained refugees “experience the trauma of being shackled and chained on their journey to and from medical care and during certain procedures in Canadian hospitals,” according to a report presented to the House of Commons last month by McGill University researchers Janet Cleveland, Cécile Rousseau and Rachel Kronick. The researchers also reported many detained refugees forgo health-care visits for fear of being shackled and humiliated.


The CBSA spends $92 million annually on detention and removal of people, the report states, with some $22 million of that under the rubric of “Public Safety Anti-Terrorism.”

The report says that immigration holding centres resemble prisons, with razor wire fences, security guards, surveillance cameras, and regimented wake-up and meal times, according to the site. Detainees don’t know how long they’ll be held. The average detention time in 2009-2010 was 28 days, the McGill report notes. Following a median detention of 18 days, over 75 per cent were clinically depressed, two-thirds clinically anxious, and a third exhibited symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A report by Delphine Nakache for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that the CBSA does not keep adequate records. He said CBSA’s own statistics show that 27 per cent of asylum seekers are detained in penal institutions even though less than 6 per cent are suspected of criminal activity or behaviour. Detainees who become suicidal or exhibit mental health issues are frequently sent to jail and placed in solitary confinement, further traumatizing people who require counselling, not punishment. 


The UN report recommends detention only in the most exceptional circumstances. It quotes from the International Commission of Jurists, which finds that poor and overcrowded conditions for migrants in detention “have regularly been found by international courts and human rights bodies to violate the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Canadian courts have also affirmed that alternatives to detention should always be considered by immigration officials. But the website,, says that “CBSA, like its brother agencies in the national security apparatus, tends to ignore or bypass such jurisprudence whenever possible.”



Faced with shocking realities in their adopted homeland, journalists such as Japan Times columnist Michael Hoffman have looked to an unlikely source for solutions. (

Hidenori Sakanaka, 66, is a former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, and one of its most respected critics. It’s likely that many current officers remain loyal to him, given Japan’s sempai-kohai system of interpersonal relations that often carry more weight than official policy or rules. He is currently director of the private Japan Immigration Policy Institute, and author of Building a Society Which Can Give Dreams to Immigrants (Gaikokujin ni Yume o Ataeru Shakai o Tsukuru), Nihon Kyohosha (2004), and Immigration Battle Diary (Nyukan Senki), Kodansha (2005).

As Hoffman reported, Nyukan Senki calls for debate about whether Japan should be a “Big Country or a Small Country.” “If the walls of Fortress Japan risk being swamped by waves of chaotic, illegal immigration,” Sakanaka writes, “then the idea of opening up the country’s gates in a limited and controlled fashion may start to look more attractive.”

His imaginary “Big Japan” circa 2050 is teeming with economic activity and cross-cultural vibrancy, sparked by 20 million immigrants living alongside 100 million Japanese (down from 125 million now). Filipinos staff the nursing homes, Indians and Chinese fuel the IT industry, and farmers from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh invigorate the countryside. Koreans have full citizenship rights while maintaining their ethnic identity. “Xenophobic” Japan has become “melting pot” Japan.

The other alternative, he says, is “Small Japan”, a beautiful country with a small population, “perhaps not unlike New Zealand.” With 25 million people fewer than today, Japan in 2050 is less crowded, less stressful, and less productive. GDP figures decline, but they don’t really matter to a greying populace anyway. Foreigners, like today, are less than 2 percent of the population, and they aren’t really part of the local game. Koreans, whose ancestors have been in Japan for more than 100 years, are still deemed “aliens,” and foreigners, whose great-grandparents came to Japan like me during the Bubble in the 1980s, are still regarded as “outsiders” and “visitors”.

As Sakanaka warns, if Japan fails to reach a consensus on a new immigration policy, the inertia of demographics will continue to push Japan toward decline. If current trends continue, Japan’s population, which peaked at 128 million in 2004, will drop below 90 million within 50 years, and below 50 million in 2100.

xxxxx ——-  xxxxx —– xxxx —– xxxx —– xxxx

Despite Sakanaka’s warnings and visions, little has changed in Japan the past 7 years. Ministry of Justice officials have only recently begun to listen to independent critics.

Grant Mitchell, of the IDC, has written about “the first-ever national roundtable on alternatives to immigration detention in Japan.” (… (contact

Over four days in October, members of the Ministry of Justice met with groups including the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), Forum for Refugees Japan (FRJ), the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) and UNHCR. He said the government promised to reduce overall detention numbers and join further discussions about alternatives to detention.

Ando Isamu, of the Jesuit Social Center in Tokyo, said members talked about the experiences of Australia and Hong Kong, where UNHCR, NGOs and governments work together. They also discussed the South Korean government’s controversial plan to build new facilities for asylum seekers in an isolated island. “This workshop was the first one to take place in Japan, and the atmosphere was very good and the content was fruitful,” Ando said.

But on the day before Christmas, that positive vibe didn’t seem to reach down to where it really matters, in the “special examination rooms” and the dungeon under Narita Airport.

xxxx—–XXXXX—–XXXXXX——XXXXX ——– XXXXX   ——   xxxxx


Since I was officially a “guest of the government”, I treated myself by sleeping in as late as I could. Luckily, I was so exhausted from the ordeal that I did fall asleep, shortly after they turned off the lights at 11pm.

When I woke up at 10 am on Saturday morning, December 24, my cell was unlocked. I looked in Jim’s room. He was already out of bed, and waiting in the communal area with the guards. He had stacked up bed mats on their sides in funky angles, as a sort of protest at the absurdity of his detention. Someone looking from the outside would think he was losing his mind. But seen from the inside, it was a way of staying sane.

The guards said I got a call from my partner. I imagined her staggering home at 6 am from the party, seeing our home phones lit up with messages.

Somebody new was in the jail’s common room to listen to my phone calls. She was a foreigner, like me. “Great,” I thought. “She’ll help sort out this mess.” She struck me as being from India, Pakistan or Afghanistan — all countries I’ve visited. She wore a blue blazer and a name tag. The strap said “US Department of Homeland Security.”

I thought: “Either they think one of us is a terrorist,” or “Someone has contacted them to monitor the rights violations down here,” or “The embassy has sent them to get us out.”

“Are you from Homeland Security?” I asked.

“No, somebody gave this to me,” she said. She fixed a look at me. I’m not sure what it meant. Was it a code? While she sat there, I was allowed to call my partner, in front of her and three other security personnel.

When I finally reached her, she said she was ready to come to the airport to rescue me. I didn’t want her to do that, because I was worried that the airline KBs would also try to extort 30,000 yen from her. “Don’t worry,” I said, “They’re going to let me go home soon. It’s all been a big mistake.”

The guards now let me make a second call, to my embassy representative. Though helpful and genuinely concerned, she said, “only Japan has authority. There’s nothing we can do.” She said my worried family and friends, who saw my messages on Facebook, had been calling her to offer assistance. She also had faxed a list of lawyers and legal assistance agencies in Japan to the immigration officers. It was a smart move, because it showed them that powerful people in Canada — the department of foreign affairs, the Canadian embassy, media people — were indeed watching what they were doing with me, a human, with a name, family and supportive friends. It was a way to humanize me, the rat criminal. The immigration authorities had no choice but to send those pages down to the dungeon.

Other than giving me paper to write it on, with a pencil (not a suicide pen), the papers were useless. How could I contact a legal website, if I wasn’t allowed internet? How could I call a lawyer, if I wasn’t allowed phone calls? The legal agencies had limited times: for example, Tuesday and Thursday, 10 am to 2 pm. What good would this do us on a Christmas holiday weekend? Would I have to wait until 10 am Tuesday?

After the call, I was allowed to speak with Jim in his room. He seemed very distraught to think he was doomed to spend Christmas in jail, away from his son. “I lived in this country for 20 years. Now look at me,” he said, downcast. “The problem in this country is, they’ve got it all backward. If you are a foreigner, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent.”

He said he was worried about his son. “My son was expecting me. Now he has no idea where I am. He probably thinks I’m dead. And if I ever get out, I won’t be able to find him.”

There was another call for me. This time from someone at Asiana Airlines.

“How are you doing this morning?” she asked, cheerfully.

“I’m in jail,” I said. “There are no windows.”

She said they had been calling my partner at home, asking her to pay 170,000 yen for my one-way ticket to Canada. I wasn’t pleased to hear that. “I’m not going home to Canada,” I scolded her. “My home is in Tokyo. I live here, in Japan.”

“This is a good offer, you should take it,” the airline employee insisted. “If you don’t, the price will go up. The normal price is 400,000 yen. If you wait, you will pay 400,000 yen.”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “I paid 25,000 yen for a round trip ticket to Seoul on your airline. And now you want me to pay 170,000 yen, or 400,000 yen? That’s 5000 dollars, for a one-way ticket. That’s more than five times the normal rate, because I’m in jail.”

“It’s not a jail, it’s a hotel.”

“A hotel? Have you ever seen this place, for yourself?”

The airline employee hung up.

I was worried. “This is a scam,” I thought. The airline guards are shaking us down for money, and now the airline is price gouging me, and even harassing my partner to pay.

But I was cheered about an hour later, when the guards told me, “Pack up your bags. Don’t leave anything behind.”

It was good news. They were going to let me out of here.

The airline KBs came to “escort” me to the immigration department. My appeal worked, I thought. They’re going to release me and let me go home.

They put me in the “Gas” van, and drove me out of the tunnel. They chatted in their non-Japanese language which I couldn’t understand. It was a bright sunny winter morning. I wanted to jump out the door and run into the light. But I figured I was going to get my passport back and be free in a few minutes anyways.

A Special Inquiry Officer sat me down in his office, across from the Special Examination Room where everything had gone wrong a day earlier. His Japanese was clear and easy to understand. He was probably a father, used to speaking with kids.

“We have made a decision on your appeal,” he said.

“Wow, that’s fast. Thank you,” I said. “I only sent it a few hours ago. I thought it might take much longer.”

“Your appeal has been rejected. This is the final decision.”

He showed me a document from the Ministry of Justice. It was an “Exclusion Order”, with my name on it, next to the details of a flight leaving for Canada. There was no other explanation.

I was crestfallen. “No, that’s not right,” I said, confused.

“There is a plane leaving for Canada at 7 pm. You must take that plane.”

“But I live in Tokyo. I have a life here.”

“If you do not take that plane, you could end up in jail for months, years. And you’ll never be allowed back into Japan.”

I was helpless. They had already put my name on a flight, though I had not agreed to anything. Against my will, they were going to send me to the Canadian winter, minus 40 temperatures, with three days clothing.

Next, the airline employees came around to hit me up for money.  They now wanted 200,000 yen for a one-way ticket on Air Canada.

I told them it was a rip-off. I knew that a round trip ticket at HIS travel agency in Tokyo was 50,000 yen plus tax.

“OK. 170,000 yen, plus 30,000 for the hotel fee and the security guards,” they said.

“This is outrageous,” I said.

I grabbed my phone from them, since they still had my passport and bags. I called a friend. “Quick, call the police. Tell them I’m in the immigration office, Narita terminal one.”

The immigration officers derided me. “Police do not have jurisdiction to come in here,” they laughed. “Narita is a special legal area.”

But within minutes, a posse of police officers showed up. Armed, they stood tall and proud over the immigration officers and the sleazy airline KBs. They folded their arms and stared down the smaller men. It was a Japanese way of showing authority, the non-verbal equivalent of “Who the hell do you think you are here.”

I told the police my whole story in Japanese. About my life in Tokyo. About the falsified statements, the extortion, the denial of rights, the injustice. They listened carefully and took notes. They seemed to respect me, as a fellow professional, a foreigner who loved Japan enough to learn Japanese. “Oh, you live close to my house in Setagaya,” said one of the younger cops. Another cop chastised the KBs for shaking me down for money. “You don’t have to pay them anything,” he said to me. “It is against the law.”

But the Special Inquiry Officer pulled the oldest cop aside to another room. He probably told them all about my “crimes and misdemeanors”. The gruff old cop came back into the room and scolded me like a criminal. “You have to exit the country immediately. This is Japan. A rule is a rule. You must obey.”

At that point, I knew I was doomed. Here was the generational divide in Japan, in full force: the younger cops warming up to the foreigner speaking Japanese, and the older cop stereotyping him as a criminal. It was an anecdote loaded with symbolism, something to write in a story. But this was my life. They were throwing me out of Japan, and I had exhausted all options.

After the cops left, the airline employee and the KBs were alone with me in a room.

“You must hurry up and buy this ticket,” the Asiana employee said. “Can you pay 150,000 yen?”

“I don’t want to pay anything,” I said. “I bought a ticket on Asiana for 25,000 yen. And now this.”

He went out to negotiate with another airline.

When he came back, he said, “The best I can do is 130,000 yen, plus 30,000 yen for the KBs.”

“No,” I said. “This is wrong. This is a scam. You are just trying to profit off someone in a weak position.”

Again, he went out, and came back with a new offer.

“I have asked for special prices. I can do it for 100,000 yen. Anything lower is absolutely impossible. I’m really trying to help you. Please get on this flight.”

I thought about it, but I shook my head in disapproval. “This whole scam is not right,” I said. “I don’t live in Vancouver, I live in Tokyo.”

He went out again. It was already after 5 o’clock. People were checking in for the 7 pm flight. I was really sweating now.

This time, he came back with a stocky guy with a case of acne, which for some reason made me think he was Chinese. He was wearing a uniform. “Do you see this gun?” he said in Japanese, turning around to show me a weapon in its holster. “I have the legal authority to use this if you refuse to get on that flight.”

He was not angry, and he did not wave the weapon in my face. But, accustomed to the peaceful vibe of Japan, I felt like I was being forced at gunpoint into using my credit card against my will to make a purchase I didn’t want to make to travel to a distant country far from my home in Tokyo.

I had no choice. The KBs led me out of the room and through the airport. They still had my bag, my passport, my wallet, credit cards, everything. I had no choice.

They put my backpack, which was nearly empty, onto the conveyor belt at the check-in counter, and gave me a one-way ticket. They whisked me through the airport like a criminal. I didn’t have to line-up for x-ray machines or immigration. The KBs pushed me through VIP lines, ahead of pilots and flight attendants.

As we walked, they continued to badger me for money. I told them flat out, “This is wrong. Have some pride. I am a working man just like you.”

The older guys backed off. They sensed I wasn’t going to give in to their pressure. But a hideous older bulldog of a woman was much more relentless. She had grey streaks in her black hair, dark freckled skin, and the tortured look of an ex-con. She showed no hint of any Japanese manners, and I wondered if she was from North Korea or another country in East Asia. She was the most obnoxious, “urusai” lady in the whole of Japan. Even the Asiana officers were taken aback by her onslaught. She raised the demand in increments — 30,000 yen, 35,000 yen, 38,900 yen — the tactic of a third world market haggler, trying to pressure you to buy before the price goes higher.

With nothing to lose, I lashed out at her in a torrent of the gangland Japanese I learned as a playful student in 1989 in the rough side of my beloved Osaka. “Where the hell do you think you are? North Korea? This is Japan. The police told me not to pay you. Are you going to break Japanese laws here, in front of all these people? Get out of my sight.”

I grabbed my daypack, where I kept my wallet, out of her hand. The hideous KB lady lunged toward me, as if to grab it back.

If she touches me, I’m going to knock her down. I was going to get revenge for all the thousands of innocent foreigners detained and abused by these war dogs from hell. I gave her my best Baghdad stare, my East Timor look of horror, my Afghanistan gaze of terror — and she didn’t flinch.

This was one tough bitch! Still holding my passport, she dogged me all the way to the gate. “I’m going to fly with him all the way to Canada,” she said to another KB, in Japanese so that I could hear it.

I steadied myself, and tried to reel in my temper. If I hit her, then it would confirm what everybody suspected: the foreigner really is a violent criminal.

Dreading the thought of her sitting next to me on the 10-hour flight to Vancouver, I schemed a better form of revenge. “The moment we land in Canada, where I am powerful and she is weak, I will tell police she is a thief and human rights abuser. I will demand they arrest her on charges of harassing a Canadian citizen.”

At the departure gate, I sat down amongst ordinary people happy to be going home for Christmas or on a ski holiday to Canada. The KB lady sat next to my bag, full of my camera equipment and MacBook Air. The two guys stood in front of me, to prevent me from bolting. I made several last phone calls to loved ones in Japan. In the midst of band rehearsal in a studio, my partner cried so heavily, she made me cry. I told her to hug our dogs for me. At the point, I realized I might never see our 15-year old dog ever again. This nightmare was all too real. My heart burst open like a seawall against a tsunami.

Flowing with tears, I ran to the bathroom — to hell with asking the guards. The older guard, the most quiet of the three, didn’t even follow me into the toilet. I was so distraught, I didn’t even take my bags with me. Now was the ogre’s chance to steal even more from me. Another KB stayed behind, to watch her.

Sitting on the toilet, a thought flashed across my mind. “This is my last chance.” I could try to climb through a panel in the ceiling, and crawl amid the pipes. Or I could make a run for it down the hall. But then what? I’m surrounded by hundreds of armed men and women with mobile phones, walkie-talkies, security cameras, automatic doors, fences, squad cars and things I don’t even know about. They’ll shoot me and kill me, or tackle me and beat me senseless. They’ll push me down the Trap Door into the gulag and nobody will ever know. There is no escape. Narita is a maximum security prison. The hardest place to escape from in Japan.

I surrendered and returned to my seat near the gate. I didn’t even look at anyone. I just covered my face in my hands and cried.

They were in such a rush to get me on the plane, they pushed me to the front of the line, ahead of a man with a cane. He had a smile of pure gratitude. He was blind.

“I am from Canada,” I scolded the KBs. “We are a civilized country. Blind people go first.”

Finally, the female KB gave up. The two male KBs escorted me onto the plane, and finally gave me back my passport.

Finally, I was free from their clutches. But they still had Jim down in the dungeon.

Ki o tsukete, take care,” I told them, and I bowed. I hoped my show of respect would make them go easier on Jim. Bowing was also a habit, an automatic reaction of anyone living a long time in Japan.

I was about to tell them “gambatte — persevere”, the mantra of the tsunami disaster zones of the northeast, and probably my favourite word in Japanese. But this time, I didn’t say it. I thought of Jim, how they had already stolen 30,000 yen off him, and were probably going to demand more.

For a moment, it seemed there was just me and the blind man on the plane. It must be blissful to be blind, I thought. To never see, or no longer see, the reality of the world around you, the full spectrum of its brilliant light and brutal darkness.

I had seen too much in Japan. For years, I had been blind to the darkest side of Japan. Now, I wondered if I would ever see the magical light again.

As we took off and flew over Narita, I saw it for what it really is — a maximum security prison, ruled by xenophobes with extrajudicial powers. Jim was still down there, in the bowels of the complex, surrounded by armed men, and a security perimeter stretching far beyond the airport. The advanced technology and organizational sophistication of Japan was arrayed against him.  No gang or army could get near him. He was completely at the mercy of corrupt, callous inhumane beings.

As the Pacific coastline came into view, I gazed perhaps one last time at the street lights and dark rice fields below. It was a feeling I had never considered before: what it would be like to leave Japan, and not return.

Flying in or out of Japan in the past, I had often marvelled at how the lights seemed to twinkle at me, to wish me a good trip — itte-rashai — or welcome me back home — okaeri-nasai.

This time, the lights didn’t shine for me. I could only notice that the vast majority of space below was filled with a deep and utter darkness. Somewhere out there, in the gulag of detention centres dotting the land like black holes in the heart of Japan, were the cries of innocent people who would not be heard.


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