The upper house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet, dissolved into chaos on Thursday as furious left-wing lawmakers used physical violence in a last-ditch effort to block an immigration bill they opposed.
The attempt failed, as the bill passed the upper house and will now be brought to a final vote.
The scuffle was relatively small and brief compared to the epic punch-ups that have occurred in the world’s more lively legislatures, but still unusual for Japan. A previous brawl of respectable size broke out in 2015 when the Diet was debating a more active role for the Japanese military.
On this occasion, the Diet was preparing to vote on an immigration bill that would provide for faster deportation of foreign nationals illegally staying in Japan.
Under the existing system, deportation orders can be suspended all but indefinitely if applications for refugee status are denied, but the applicants file repeated appeals. The Japanese government claims a growing number of people are clearly abusing this process to remain in the country indefinitely, long after their appeals for refugee status have been rejected.
The new policy would allow deportation proceedings to commence without further delay after two appeals by the applicant are rejected. Japanese officials also presented swifter deportations as an alternative to lengthy detentions in holding facilities while endless applications and appeals are processed. The immigration bill allows foreigners undergoing deportation proceedings to avoid detention if they have clean legal records.
The left-wing opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) vigorously opposes the immigration reforms, arguing that refugees could be put in danger by returning them to their home countries. The government of sitting Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said exceptions would be made for obviously endangered people such as refugees from Ukraine, but this did not satisfy the opposition.
Protesters gathered outside parliamentary headquarters during debate over the immigration bill, while CDP and its allies – including the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) – staged increasingly unruly protest actions inside the Diet chamber. Some lawmakers from the lower house of parliament gathered in the halls outside the Diet to voice their own objections to the bill.
“Steamrolling this bill is unacceptable,” cried JCP lawmaker Nihi Sohei during the debate. “That’s why we demand that it be withdrawn and that thorough deliberations be conducted.”
Some of Nihi’s colleagues resorted to heckling their opponents and then turned to violence by forming a mob around committee chair Sugi Histatake, physically blocking him from bringing the hardcopy of the bill to the head of the chamber for a vote.
Opposition lawmaker Yamamoto Taro of the left-wing populist Reiwa Shinsegumi took things a step further by lunging into the scrum of his colleagues and touching off a brawl. It was not entirely clear what he sought to accomplish, but it looks like he might have been trying to grab the paper copy of the bill away from its bearer.
Yamamoto, incidentally, is a former actor perhaps best known for appearing in Battle Royale, a 2000 film about a dystopian future in which the oppressive government forces children to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat. (No, not that film about a dystopian future in which the oppressive government forces children to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat, although the similarities have been noted).
Japan currently has a small refugee population by the standards of the Western world and it rejects most applicants. 2022 was a “record high” year for granting refugee status, according to Nikkei Asia, but that still meant only 202 applications were approved out of roughly 3,700 submitted.
The Japanese parliament tried to reform its immigration and asylum laws in 2021, but the effort was abandoned after a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman named Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali died in a detention facility. Wishma came to Japan as a student in 2017 but was incarcerated in August 2020 for overstaying her visa.
In April 2023, the government released security camera footage from the facility that showed Wishma bedridden, groaning in pain, and begging for medical care – which was not rendered even after she was found unresponsive on the day of her death.
Wishma’s family is suing the Japanese government over her death in custody. Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu argued the bill currently before the Diet is “essential to prevent the recurrence of similar cases and to solve the problem of long-term detention.”