Japan showcases aid efforts as 20 refugees from Ukraine arrive by plane

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TOKYO, April 5 (Reuters) – The Japanese government flew 20 Ukrainian refugees to Tokyo on Tuesday in a show of support for international efforts to help Ukraine, an unusually warm welcome from a country that has long balked to accept strangers.

The 20, aged 6 to 66, are not the first Ukrainians to arrive since Russia invaded their country on February 24, but they were the first to board a special government plane on an organized trip by the Japanese Foreign Minister.

“The Government of Japan is committed to providing maximum support to these 20 Ukrainians to help them live with a sense of peace in Japan,” Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said in Poland shortly before he and the refugees don’t leave for Japan.

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Hayashi, who was in Poland to assess the refugee situation, arrived in Tokyo on a separate flight shortly before the 20 landed.

National broadcaster NHK televised their arrival live.

The 20 join about 400 other Ukrainian refugees already in Japan. Officials did not say whether Japan would offer more special flights or how many refugees might be allowed in.

Ethnically homogeneous Japan has long been wary of migrants despite an aging population and labor shortages, but opinion polls show nearly 90% of people support hosting Ukrainian refugees and groups helpers say the government has moved with unprecedented speed to help.

Cities have offered housing, businesses have promised jobs and financial aid, and some citizens have offered rooms in their homes.

In 2020, Japan recognized only 47 refugees and admitted another 44 on “humanitarian grounds” – less than 1% of the total number of applicants.

PUBLIC RESPONSE

Japan, a staunch US ally, has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and applied various sanctions, although it has not given up its stakes in Russian gas projects.

The fact that the aggressor in Ukraine is Russia, with whom Japan has a long-standing dispute over remote islands, means the issue resonates with both the public and politicians from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative party, according to analysts and refugee advocates.

Russia’s unprovoked attack on a peaceful neighbor is also an uncomfortable reminder for Japan of circumstances in its neighborhood, said Kanagawa University professor Corey Wallace.

“In the Japan situation, you have a very peaceful Japan and then you have this great hegemonic dominating power – China – which could disrupt the enjoyment of peace,” he said.

The welcome also appears to be, at least in part, due to the Ukrainians coming from Europe, refugee advocates say.

“Many callers say they will only help Ukrainians. Some mention their race or say ‘refugees from other countries are a bit dangerous,'” said Ayako Niijima of the Japan Refugee Association, referring to phone calls from the public offering help.

There was no such public response last year for refugees from Afghanistan or Myanmar, she added.

Tuesday’s flight helps Kishida, who faces an important election for the upper house of parliament in June, look decisive in the eyes of allies and foreign voters, said Airo Hino, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

“They want to show what Japan is doing – something that makes a good picture,” he said.

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Reporting by Elaine Lies, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Mariko Katsumura, Ju-min Park; Editing by Robert Birsel

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