Dead on the Dark Side of Japan — Murder at Narita, deaths in detention

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A Tokyo court rules that immigration officers used illegal means to restrain an African man who died of suffocation at Narita Airport after working in Japan for 22 years without a visa. Others have died in Japan’s secretive network of  prisons for foreigners, known as the Gaijin Gulag. Suicides, hunger strikes and the deaths of three detainees in recent months have started shining light on dark corners unseen by most in tourist-friendly Japan.

— Words and photos by Christopher Johnson in Japan —

Abubakar Awadu Suraj came to Japan from Ghana on a tourist visa in May 1988, found work in factories, met a Japanese woman, and lived with her for 22 years.

But in 2006, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced a crackdown that, since then, has resulted in Japan deporting more than 100,000 “visa overstayers” — foreign workers who paid taxes but had no legal status in Japan.

Suraj married his longtime partner in 2006 and the Tokyo District Court rescinded a deportation order. But the Tokyo High Court over-turned that ruling on the grounds that she didn’t “need” a husband since she worked and had no kids, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

One-day in May 2009, Suraj’s wife came home and found him missing. She later discovered that immigration police had suddenly arrested and incarcerated him in a secretive detention center for foreigners. After 10 months in jail without trial, immigration officers tried to deport him on an Egypt Air flight to Cairo. As passengers came aboard, crew found Suraj dead in his seat. The pilot refused orders to take his corpse to Egypt.

Immigration officials didn’t tell his widow why he died, and didn’t give her his body for three months until she filed law suits against the Justice Ministry. Several Africans demonstrated in Tokyo, and the Ghanaian Embassy turned down the government’s letter of apology. 

“This is criminal abuse of power,” Junpei Yamamura, a doctor who often visits detainees in jail, told the Japan Times after examining Suraj’s body.

Chiba prefectural police sent papers to prosecutors about 10 security guards suspected of causing death through violent acts. But in July 2012, the Chiba public prosecutors office decided not to indict anyone, and it’s not known if the guards still work at Narita Airport or for the immigration department.

But a Tokyo District Court ruled last week on March 19 that his death was due to suffocation caused by illegal methods of restraint by guards who cuffed his hands and ankles, roped his waist, gagged him with a towel, carried him onto the plane and forced him to hunch over in his seat.

“Their actions were illegal because the possible danger far outweighed the need and appropriateness for such restraint,” Judge Hisaki Kobayashi said in the verdict, according to Japanese press reports. He rejected government claims that Suraj died of “heart problems”. “Breathing restrictions due to the gag, and the limitations on movement of the chest and diaphragm caused by being forced into a posture of having his face near his knees, led to breathing difficulties that caused death by suffocation,” the verdict said.


“My husband wasn’t treated as a human,” said Suraj’s wife, 52, according to the Asahi Shimbun, which didn’t name her. “The primary goal of the guards was to carry out the deportation, so they likely did not think they were dealing with another human.”

The court ordered the government to pay her and his family in Ghana five million yen, much less than their demands for 130 million yen. Many have criticized the compensation amount, based on what Suraj would have earned in Ghana, though he had been working in Japan for 21 years.

British businessman Simon Robertson, who owned a real estate firm in Japan, says he was wrongfully deported, robbed of his money and passport, and charged 40,000 yen for his night in jail at Narita Airport just a month before Suraj’s death. “I feel really sorry for the poor Japanese lady,” Robertson, who brought his case to the British Parliament, said by email. “To have a partner killed for no reason and then go through all the abuse that she received, yet all she got was $49,000. It does seem that life, even a Japanese life means very little to those in power.”

Government lawyers argued that Suraj strongly resisted attempts to forcibly deport him. But a video at the trial showed Suraj was calm before guards bound and forced him onto the plane.

The Asahi quoted an unnamed Justice Ministry official as saying, “We will decide on what steps to take after sufficiently considering the contents of the verdict.”

Many in Japan, outraged by recent cases of foreigners allegedly involved in the murders of Japanese women, feel that Japanese immigration officers and guards are justified in taking harsh measures against illegal residents.

Article 61-4 of the Japanese immigration act confirms that immigration officers are allowed to carry and use weapons to restrain people, force them onto a flight, or injure them if they resist.


Yet the Suraj case is not the first time a Japanese court has ruled against official treatment of detained foreigners.

In 2004, the Tokyo District Court ordered the “I’M” company and three guards at Narita Airport to pay damages for assaulting and extorting money from two Tunisians denied entry into Japan in 2000, according to Kyodo News reports at that time.

The Tokyo High Court in 2012 ordered a retrial and release of Govinda Mainali, a Nepalese jailed 15 years for allegedly strangling to death Yasuko Watanabe, a sex industry worker and an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power company, TEPCO. The court said DNA evidence proved that semen and hair at the 1997 crime scene didn’t belong to Mainali, then a restaurant worker in the Shibuya entertainment district.

Immediately upon his release from a Yokohama jail, immigration officials detained and deported Mainali to Nepal on a visa overstay charge — a move meant to deter him from seeking compensation, rights activists say.

Human rights activist Arudou Debito, a longtime US-born Japan resident now based in Hawaii, says Japan has a “policing regime” rather than an immigration policy.

Faced with criticism from the United Nations, Amnesty International and local rights groups, Japan has recently chartered jets to forcibly deport people back to Thailand and other countries.

Japan, with a shrinking population, last year accepted only six out of more than 3000 applications for asylum.

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Many asylum seekers end up in Japan’s special prisons for foreigners known as the “Gaijin Gulag”.

Deaths in detention are shining light on these dark corners.

In the shadow of a giant Buddha statue in Ibaraki prefecture between Tokyo and Fukushima, hundreds of foreign detainees have endured harsh conditions incongruous with the cozy lifestyle enjoyed by many foreigners in Japan.

Without appearing in court, they often spend six to 18 months like caged animals in windowless cells in Ushiku, the largest of a secretive network of detention centers created to incarcerate foreigners pending deportation for overstaying visas and working illegally in Japan.

Chamballa Ally, a Tanzanian who shared a cramped room with detainees from Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines, said he was only allowed into a yard a few hours per day to play soccer. “In Ushiku, you can only see the high walls around you and the sky above,” said Ally, who was deported to Tanzania before joining his US-born wife Alisha James in Indiana in 2012. “People watch TV, read or sit in despair. They are so tired from stress. They are not criminals, but they have no freedom. It’s not a place to stay for a long time. People don’t know when they will be free.”

Japan detained 23,133 foreigners at 16 smaller immigration offices and three large detention centers in Ibaraki, Osaka and Nagasaki in 2011, according to the Global Detention Project’s latest figures.


An unnamed spokesman at Ushiku told AFP this week that a coroner will look into the deaths last weekend of an Iranian who allegedly choked on food and a Cameroonian found unconscious in his cell. A Rohingya detainee from Myanmar died in October after staff allegedly failed to call a medic on lunch break.

Amnesty International and local rights groups have long accused Japanese of beating or torturing prisoners. Jorge Bustamente, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, urged Japan in 2010 to meet international human rights standards. About 30 Japanese officials, facing harsh criticism at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in 2012, pledged to reform a system based on the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of 1951, when Japan had very few foreign residents.

Japan’s foreign population has doubled in two decades to 1.7 percent of Japan’s total. Deportations were rare in the 1980s and 90s when many foreigners entered Japan on tourist visas, found work and married Japanese. In 1995, a popular British DJ was detained and forced to buy an over-priced ticket to Hong Kong. US-born Dan Bloom, now in Taiwan, was arrested at the Daily Yomiuri newspaper on charges of working illegally for five years. He claims Japan held him in solitary confinement for 41 days, without trial, before forcing him onto a plane.


Japan has detained and deported more than 100,000 foreigners since former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara called for a crackdown in the Shinjuku and Roppongi entertainment districts.

In 2003, police and immigration officials launched a joint policy to arrest, within five years, about half of an estimated 125,000 visa overstayers in greater Tokyo. “An increasing number of visa-less foreigners engage in serious crimes,” said then-Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa. “Solving the problem of illegal residents is a pending task for regaining public safety in Japan.”

Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and Justice Ministry reform committee member, said Japan, faced with labor shortages, loosened enforcement of rules to let in workers, but then mistreated them instead of helping them settle in Japan. “The crackdown hit a lot of harmless people who Japan needed,” he said. “The long detention is inhumane. If they decide they do not want you, then like the US they should show you the door quickly, with the provision you can apply to come back if, for example, you have learned Japanese or have some skill Japan needs.”

Hidenori Sakanaka, chief of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau from 2002 to 2005, told local media that the bureau must go public about long confinements which are “mentally tough”. “The Immigration Bureau must stop suicides and hunger strikes.”

Michael Todd, a former New Zealand lawyer now living in Tokyo with his Japanese wife, said he spent 42 days in the Osaka detention center in 2012 after what he called a “misunderstanding” about his visa status and protests against the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, western Japan. “I had no idea it was this bad in Japan. It’s like you put your hand up and give away all your human rights when you enter this country,” he told this reporter in 2012. “In Japan, you are guilty until proven innocent. It’s a system from 80 years ago.”

He said he saw an Iranian urinate in their cell to protest squalid conditions, and witnessed eight officers wrestling down a Congolese. A Nigerian, whose family members were killed by Muslims, was put in a cell with Muslims, while a lower floor for females held Asian sex workers, he said.

He said 45 hours passed before a doctor came for his high blood pressure. “I told them ‘I could die in here, have a heart attack, and you can’t even open the door to let people out.’ People are dying in Japanese jails all the time.”