On March 22, 2010 (ironically, the same day my own visa was up for renewal), something terrible happened at Narita airport.
Abubakar Awudu Suraj, 45, a Ghanian national who had overstayed his visa, was being forcibly deported. Most reports concede that he put up resistance. They state he became aggressive and that in the course of the incident, 10 immigration officers and airport officials were involved in restraining him. He died about 30 minutes later.
Suraj's Ghanian mother and Japanese widow are suing the the Japanese government and immigration authorities. They claim he was the victim of an excessively violent suppression, involving multiple assailants and illegal restraining equipment.
According to the Yomiuri, reports by individuals “close to the case” said that the coroner had ruled Surah had a past history of heart disease and that was the cause of death.
One year later, the Chiba District Public Prosecutors Office concluded that although handcuffs and other means had been used to restrain him, the officers had acted legitimately in the course of duty.
Some individuals have alleged the case to be a gross miscarriage of justice. In reality, information available to the public is so scant for those of us reading about it, the truth at best is an intuitive guessing game.
This is where issues that transcend a tragedy by any means arise.
A number of articles highly critical of the Japanese system of justice, as well as the incident itself, have appeared in the international media. One ends by pointing out that the publication attempted to get the Chiba Prosecutors' side of the story, but they flatly refused, stating that all comments are released through the "kisha" club system (a closed press core which often excludes independent and foreign news organizations.)
The international press should indeed ask a lot of questions about the Suraj case, and equally, Japanese authorities must answer them. Having an image as a country that beats detainees to death is far from desirable not only from a human rights point of view, but a tourist perspective as well.
To make things worse, while press information from public officials was limited to foreign officials, the Suraj's widow and his lawyer made themselves available barely a month after the incident at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan for a press conference.
At the hour-long event, attendees were given a past history of troublesome deportations from Japan. The month prior, a South Korean man had hanged himself at a detention center. There was also the suicide of a young Brazilian man in Ibaragi, as well as a hunger strike by 70 detainees at a detention center that month too.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club alleged that illegal immigrants are routinely kept in appalling conditions in circumstances that lack judicial oversight.
Just as no members representing Suraj’s side of the story were present at the Kisha Club press conferences, no individuals representing the 10 officers and the Japanese Department of Justice were listed as present at the press conference either. Such norms result in a disturbingly unbalanced situation in which Japanese media appear to be “state controlled,” and foreign media simply don’t get the full story.
In the end, we really don’t know what happened. In the U.S. under similar circumstances, would Mr Suraj have been tasered and restrained by whatever means necessary in order to ensure his removal, the personal safety of others and the officers – or were the actions of the guards outside the norms of international law?
I don’t know. In fact, it is not the purpose of this article to offer an opinion on what actually happened. Rather, I would like to offer an admonition to Japanese officials. Japan is viewed from the outside world and if the system unintentionally cuts off the flow of information to journalists outside the country, expect that international coverage will focus on the worst. In addition, incidents such as the Suraj case only serve to darken the views of foreigners living in Japan toward the country, the result being detrimental to the fostering of international goodwill toward Japan.
The solution to the problem is simple: Take foreign, independent and non-mainstream media seriously, and make sure there are bilingual vehicles for correspondence and exchange of information in any situation affecting the image of the country. It may be “taihen,” but in failing to do so, consider the consequences to Japan’s image as a nation, as well as the Japanese people as a whole.© Japan Today