President Talks (with Ms. Mai Kaneko, Hosei University Alumna and Legal Associate at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] Japan Office)

November 17, 2017

Begin with what you can do to solve problems around you imagining what people placed in different situations from you are experiencing

Striving to save people excluded as “aliens”

Tanaka: You have long been engaged as a UN staff member in addressing refugee problems. First of all, please tell us what made you interested in working to assist refugees.

Kaneko: Well, I’d have to go back to my student days when I was unable to go to school. Bullying, which had continued from my upper grades at elementary school, brought me to the point where I could no longer go to school when I was a second-year junior high school student, so I attended a free school. In my case, other students began to bully me because I was “different” from them, in that I clearly expressed my opinions and did what I liked during the break, for example. My case resembled the structure of exclusion of aliens in a sense. Although my case was minor in comparison, refugee problems also occur as a result of exclusion of some members of society due to differences between them and the majority in terms of religious faith, political views or the like. My experience of being excluded as an “alien” led to my spontaneous interest in refugee problems, despite the vast gap in the level.

Tanaka: I understand you grew up in a liberal family.

Kaneko: The root of my interest was the lesson my parents taught me: “The majority are not always correct.” From my early childhood, I grew up seeing my parents devote themselves to addressing human-rights and social problems, and naturally came into positive contact with people who could be called minorities, including people of foreign origin and disabled people, whom I became acquainted with at a Protestant church famous for its liberal stance. These relationships led me to pursue my current activities.

Tanaka: You chose Hosei University’s Faculty of Social Sciences for your higher education.

Kaneko: I entered a correspondence senior high school, and went to prep school to prepare for university entrance exams at the same time. But my father killed himself at Christmas when I was a third-year senior high school student, which was the worst timing. I also lost my grandfather several weeks after that, so I was unable to sit for the National Center Test for University Admissions. To a student of my father in Waseda University, who visited us to make a call of condolence, I cried, “I don’t feel I can take the entrance exams any time soon. I wonder how I can live from now on.” The person listened to me attentively, and said, “I recommend that you study sociology or social sciences to find the answers to your questions.” That person recommended Hosei University to me as the university with the best faculty members for a faculty of social sciences in Japan.

Tanaka: I see that experience was very hard on you.

Kaneko: My father was not only a person of character and an ikumen (a father ready to play an important role in raising children) but also a teacher really respected by his students. However, it seemed to me that he severely suffered from the dilemma he faced between his own stance and the mainstream values of Japanese society, which tended to force people to act in ways defined by their status or position in society. At university, I wanted to consider what could be behind such tragedies.

Tanaka: Can you talk about your memories of Hosei University?

Kaneko: I was excited by the classes given at the Faculty of Social Sciences, which dealt with the human rights of minorities, the issue of population mobility in Asia, and so on. The classes given by you, which discussed history from a gender perspective, also interested me very much. I learned many things at the Faculty of Social Sciences, such as the social structure of discrimination, cultural sensitivity, and ways of applying academic research directly to society. I still visit professors at Hosei University to ask them for advice at turning points in my life.

I also participated in volunteer activities to support refugees. I certainly acknowledge the importance of academic research, but my personality inevitably leads me to place higher priority on directly helping people in front of me. I participated in activism to support Mr. Govinda Prasad Mainali, who had been falsely charged with murdering a female TEPCO employee, and who was found not guilty after 15 years’ imprisonment.

Tanaka: Actually, I was also a supporter of Govinda. DNA profiling played a critical role in the juridical decision for the retrial, but such a result would not have been achieved without the continued activism in support of him. I’m concerned about the gradually spreading, frightening prejudice that a growing number of foreign nationals in Japan will lead to a crime-prone society.

Kaneko: I completely agree with you. While I feel Japanese people are becoming more tolerant of diversity, I sometimes hear hate speech or remarks of a similar nature, such as “Refugees are garbage! Get out!” When I hear such speech, I almost break down in tears. Given that Japanese people previously had a positive attitude toward helping refugees at a grass-roots level, I’m disappointed at the increasing number of negative comments toward refugees. Although I think such people, who never stop making rapid-fire remarks on the Internet, constitute only a small portion of Japanese society in fact, they can appear to be the majority. Acceptance of refugees is mandatory in the international community, but supporters of acceptance may have to devote greater efforts to correcting such misunderstanding. Long-sustained efforts at communication are necessary to create better public understanding.

Desiring to have a perspective of how we can save the worst sufferers

Tanaka: You studied abroad as an undergraduate.

Kaneko: The university sent me through a student exchange program to the University of California, Davis, for one year. After graduating from Hosei University, I entered graduate school at Columbia University to study international human rights law. A master’s degree from the U.S. or UK would allow me to achieve my goal of assisting refugees as a staff member of the United Nations or an NGO. With regard to Japanese law—which I had to use later on in my work—, while I studied administrative law, the Local Autonomy Act and the like at the Department of Policy Science on Society during my student days, I desperately studied civil and criminal law, and so on at the legal school Ito-juku after beginning working.

Tanaka: After obtaining a master’s degree, you joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Japan office. Can you describe how the UN recruits its staff members?

Kaneko: In the United Nations, each organization recruits its own staff members, in principle. Many Japanese UN staff members-to-be take a screening test for the Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Program, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs implements to send young people to work for international organizations. Successful applicants of the test submit a request to work for a particular UN organization, such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In my case, I happened to find job openings at the UNHCR Japan office, and applied directly. After working at the office for nearly 10 years, I also worked as an international staff member at UNHCR offices in Lebanon and Pakistan. I’m on leave from the Japan office right now.

Tanaka: Can you explain your work specifically?

Kaneko: Talking only about the Japan office, our duties relate to the acceptance of refugees and assistance for stateless people in Japan. Since the Ministry of Justice is responsible for refugee recognition in Japan, we explain to immigration officers what being a refugee means, and ask them not to detain but rather to help people without a passport. We have also conducted a large number of training activities for officers in charge of refugee recognition, teaching them how to interview or conduct legal screening of applicants for refugee status.

Tanaka: Does the law clearly define refugee status?

Kaneko: The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons briefly define the status of people to be assisted. However, interpretations of the relevant laws differ according to whether the focus is placed on individuals or states. Since governments in power are the actual persecutors of potential refugees, such people have difficulty proving their status as victims of human rights infringement. There is also no way for many stateless people to prove they have no nationality. I’m working with the belief that law should be interpreted from the perspective of how we can save the worst sufferers.

Tanaka: It is said that Japan’s refugee recognition rate is low.

Kaneko: The rate is certainly not high, and I certainly believe the Japanese government should avoid detaining applicants for refugee status, and doing so for a long time in particular. But, as an aspect of reality, the government has recently made many efforts to support refugees: for example, launching a program to accept Syrian refugees as international students or the like.


Desiring to share the importance of having discussions and taking action

Tanaka: Refugee problems have recently been a focus of international concern.

Kaneko: Taking detention as an example of each country’s response to refugees, there is a growing global trend toward freeing refugee status applicants without residence status to live in their communities at first, and responding flexibly to problems that occur, rather than detaining such people immediately. Japan is no exception in this regard.

Tanaka: I believe that we as members of Japanese society have to become accustomed to accepting refugees as neighbors.

Kaneko: I totally agree. Some people who have been officially recognized as refugees are not accepted into local society. As a matter of fact, some black people are frequently questioned by police, or cannot rent an apartment room. Many refugee children are bullied at school. I felt sick at heart when I heard that a refugee child had come home from school sobbing, “What does ‘kimoi’ (nauseating) mean?”

Tanaka: You also listen to and give advice to such people.

Kaneko: Yes. The staff of the UNHCR Japan office directly visit their communities to listen to them. After that, we have discussions with NGO staff to explore effective ways of assistance, or take PR measures to enhance a proper public understanding of refugees. One father, who had worked as a university professor back home, sobbed to us, “I work for 800 yen an hour in a plant in Japan, and my current situation prevents me from sending my children to university, even though I’m eager to do so.” However, universities in Japan have begun to cooperate with us in various ways one after another, so a growing number of refugee students have become able to study at university on a scholarship. Refugees have overcome various difficulties, and are studying or working while making good use of their own characteristics. I believe their presence has helped enrich Japanese society.

Tanaka: I hope Hosei University will also cooperate from now on.

Kaneko: Thank you very much. While I feel grateful for your cooperation in helping refugees study at university, I think that what is suitable in terms of current needs is support for refugees who need to be earning an income right now to take verification tests in technical skills or language proficiency, which may lead them to really find jobs.

Tanaka: People differ in their situations, and in their levels and types of abilities, so a system for responding to each person’s needs is desired.

Kaneko: I truly appreciate your consideration in employing refugees as staff members. I sympathize with Hosei University’s initiatives. It has implemented a pioneering class initiative, represented by the course “Practical studies for changing our society,” and I was deeply impressed by the university’s Declaration for Diversity, which appropriately includes “foreign nationals” and “sexual minorities.”

Tanaka: We are involved in these initiatives, believing not only making a declaration but also taking action are important. In conclusion, can you give a message to students interested in international issues?

Kaneko: I hope that students will stop taking for granted what they can enjoy just because they were born in Japan, and strive to imagine what it is like being a refugee or stateless person born in situations where their efforts are never rewarded or their environments even prevent them from making efforts. Tackling international issues is never difficult. There are many things you can do in Japan in terms of international assistance without visiting a refugee camp abroad. You can teach Japanese to refugee or stateless children, serve as a home tutor working free of charge (, help refugee status applicants or stateless people in detention to meet the people they want to meet, or frequent restaurants ( or nail salons ( where refugees work. I hope you will begin with what you can do.

Tanaka: Imagination is important.

Kaneko: I think that, in Japan, if students raise such topics as politics, refugee problems or human rights in the student cafeteria, they may find their friends turn standoffish, just as I did. In contrast, in the U.S., it is quite commonplace for students to discuss politics and social problems, and those who cannot express their own views are viewed with contempt. Students sometimes go for peace walks after classes.

Tanaka: I suppose that such attitudes of Japanese students may result from the public reaction to student movements in the 1960s and early 70s. The escalating violence of internal conflict in some groups led to the fall of citizens’ movements, and helped shape the erroneous general assumption that political movements are bad. I hope students will become accustomed to having discussions at university, instead of wasting their environment where they can encounter people with diverse backgrounds. I hope we at the university will appropriately educate them in such a direction.

You have taught us some important lessons today. I hope Hosei University will make efforts to assist refugees. I look forward to your valuable advice.

Kaneko: It’s my pleasure. I am delighted to cooperate with you. Thank you very much.

* The opinions expressed in this interview are held by the interviewee, not by the organizations to which she belongs.

Kaneko Mai
Legal associate, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Japan office

Born in Tokyo in 1979, she graduated from the Department of Policy Science on Society, Faculty of Social Sciences, Hosei University.

While studying at Hosei University, she learned women’s studies and refugee studies as an exchange student at the University of California, Davis, for one year. She studied international law and human rights law at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and acquired a master’s degree there in 2004. She worked as an intern at the Sierra Leone office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and worked with a refugee support NGO, before joining the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Japan office in 2004. She has served as a legal associate to help accept refugees and assist stateless people in Japan. She has also worked in Lebanon (as an associate resettlement officer), Pakistan (as a legal officer) and other places. She has a DELE B2 (Diploma of Spanish as a Foreign Language at the advanced level), and is licensed as a certified administrative procedure legal specialist. She is also the coauthor of the book New Frontiers in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (in Japanese; published by Gendaijinbun-sha), and has presented papers on statelessness. In 2016, she was on leave for childcare, and was conducting research on statelessness as a PhD candidate in the PhD program at the Maastricht Graduate School of Law, the Netherlands.