Bread & Roses: Needless Death of a Sri Lankan Detainee


SNA (Tokyo) — “Japan is safer than other countries; the Japanese are kind; the streets are clean; and it’s easy to live here.” I hear foreigners say these things. But I also hear it from Japanese who have never lived abroad. The mainstream media’s Nippon Sugoi! campaign is working, perhaps, but it’s not far off from the nation’s general reputation. But read on: The current reality may blow your image of my country to smithereens. Can such a thing be happening in Japan in 2021?

On March 6, 2021, a Sri Lankan woman died inside the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau, aged 33. After graduating from university in Sri Lanka, she came to Japan in 2017, dreaming to teach English to Japanese children, and she studied at a vocational school. Her parents in her home country stopped sending her money, however, and she could no longer pay tuition. She lost her student visa. Covid-19 blocked her return home to Sri Lanka, so she fell into illegal status. She was arrested and detained by the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau in August 2020.

While in detention, a support group visited her. She at first appeared to be in good health, but gradually her physical and mental health deteriorated to the point where she was unable to stand, the group reported. She was eventually receiving visitors in a wheelchair.

On March 12, at the Budget Committee of the House of Councillors, Taiga Ishikawa, a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, questioned Immigration Services Agency Commissioner Shoko Sasaki. (Ishikawa, incidentally, is only the second openly gay member of the National Diet.)

Councillor Taiga Ishikawa: In January, she lost 12 kilos. This is a woman in her thirties, so losing 12 kilos must be very difficult for her. She felt something wrong in her throat and couldn’t keep meals down. The detention center’s nurse told her to do moderate exercise and to massage her stomach. Is it appropriate to tell a woman who had lost 12 kilos to do moderate exercise and massage her stomach?

Commissioner Shoko Sasaki: We are currently investigating the deceased’s medical treatment and health situation, including the point you are asking.

Councillor Taiga Ishikawa: In late January, she complained of pain in her legs, stomach, and numbness in her tongue. She vomited blood. She told her support group visitors that she was dying. She continued to vomit blood. And what did the immigration officers say to her? They told her that all that vomiting was distressing others, so they moved her into solitary confinement. She complained of dizziness, heart palpitations, and numbness in her arms and legs, but the center prescribed her vitamins and [the anti-inflammatory drug] Loxonin. Is this adequate medical care? Can we really call this a proper system?

Commissioner Shoko Sasaki: We are also investigating what led up to that. As I mentioned earlier, we would like to continue to improve our medical system.

Councillor Taiga Ishikawa: This is so painful for me to read. She ends up taking visitors in a wheelchair, carrying a bucket–because she is vomiting and throwing up blood. In late February, she loses 20 kilograms. She says her stomach hurts. She bleeds from the mouth and falls, but nobody helps her, so she stays there lying on the floor. In March, she becomes dangerously ill, with numbness in her head and unable to move her limbs properly. The support group demands she be admitted to the hospital immediately because she will die if left like this, but the immigration officer refuses, saying only that the schedule is fixed. Is this not horrible? You say you are investigating, but we already know so much. Why are you not investigating?

Commissioner Shoko Sasaki: We have sent staff from our main center to the Nagoya Immigration Bureau to conduct interviews and so on. We are, of course, collecting any remaining documents and what not. We are examining and analyzing them.

What do you think when you read this exchange between Taiga Ishikawa and Shoko Sasaki? A 33-year-old young foreign woman who came to Japan to study with great hopes in her heart, only to lose her status of residence, be arrested, detained, deprived of her freedom, thrown in a prison for eight months, treated abominably even when in great physical pain, denied proper medical treatment, placed instead in a solitary cell because her coughing up blood and vomiting in pain was “distressing” others. If I were in her shoes, I would wish only for a quick end. What crime did she commit? What wrong did she perpetrate?

The state deprived a human being of life. Japan does not treat foreigner overstayers as human beings. Since when did Japan become such a cruel country?

Immigration Services Agency Commissioner Shoko Sasaki robotically repeated the defensive mantra “we are investigating.” Would she respond so bloodlessly and callously if her own family member underwent the same thing in a foreign country?

As a Japanese national, I dream of Japan becoming a country that does not discriminate based on nationality or race, a nation that respects the life of each individual. Things are so bad now, though, that I think Japan should withdraw from the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. No nation that accepts only 0.4% of asylum seekers, detains and deports them, has a right to be a party to that treaty. The central government holds a thoroughly xenophobic stance toward foreigners but doesn’t even bother to hide its desire to use foreigners as cheap labor to make up labor shortfalls in nursing care, agriculture, and other areas. What ugliness!

Look carefully at the advertisement at the top of this article by the Nagoya Immigration Bureau, whose refusal to treat a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman like a human being cost that woman her life. The koala mascot seems oddly cheerful and sanguine. On December 18, the very day that the bureau opened its Facebook page, a young woman detained at the Nagoya Immigration Bureau was struggling to survive an illness that they refused to treat.

To the government employees working at the Immigration Bureau: Did you become a civil servant because you aspired to do something like this?

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).