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Refugees and Migrants in Tokyo: An Oral Narrative Approach  

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David H. Slater,;  


Participating Members:

Murai Noriko, Okada Hanako 
Affiliates: Tanaka Masako (Sophia U., Faculty of Global Studies) 

Project Statement 

Over the last 5 years, the issue of foreign in-migration, and in particular, with a focus on refugees have exploded into the popular consciousness in Japan. While long an issue of contention among academics and activists, the coercive policies and abusive treatment of those coming to Japan seeking a chance for a safe and secure life has now become a headline in mainstream papers. Despite the “moral panics” that we see around us, the actual amount of research that is being done on these issues is very limited. In fact, to our knowledge, this is the first of its kind in Japan to focus on refugee population. 

Foundational data already collected 

Our previous project, “Digital Social Science and Oral Narrative Research,” focused on the more methodological aspects of oral narrative. As part of that project, we have been interviewing a range of people, including immigrants and refugees. Currently, we have about 200 hours of digital video interspersed with other interviews from This will serve as a foundational database for our next step—a systematic focus on this population.  


Thematic Focus 

Building upon the data, experience, and capacities that we have developed in past ICC projects, we will continue to interview, archive and disseminate the narratives of refugees coming to Tokyo. Where are they from? Why did they leave? How did they get to Tokyo?  

How are they living here? Within the particular focus on life in Tokyo, we will pay special attention to the following.  

1. The role of civil society organizations—church, mosque and temple—as well as the different governmental and non-governmental support agencies. This is an important interface because between the refugee and Japanese society.  

2. The construction of family and kin—both biological and fictive—as community internal support. Because each national groups are still relatively small in number, we have an exceptional opportunity to better understand how these networks of support form.  

3. Rhetorical of refugee narrative--In addition to thematic focus, we are also developing what we call a rhetorical focus—that is a focus on the ways narratives of flight, transition and relocation are constructed from a community perspective. While these are import parts of a durable refugee identity, at the same time, refugees have learned that these narratives are their primary means to make rhetorically and legally convincing claims in the immigration case. As such, the constructions of these narratives are of particular interest.  


There are as many paths to Tokyo as there are refugees. For that reason, we are proposing rather than only the condensation of interview data into academic format (which of course we will also do), we are trying find ways to retain narrative structure and voice. In this way, we think we will 1. produce a much-needed record of refugee life in Japan; 2. retain the person inside the data; 3. have a produce that is more recognizable to a larger popular audience.  


While we have developed digital competence in data collection, archiving and presentation, over these past two covid years, we have had to move to remote data collection methods, mostly Zoom. While we hope to move back into the face-to-face interviews, we have learned to use Zoom in ways that have expanded the range of narrators, including those who are less mobile or otherwise unable to have face-to-face contact.  


The days of academics talking just to other academics is gone, or at least has rendered many of these efforts on the margins where digitally-centered academia is developing—which is most of academia. Our project will explore different ways of creative serious academic work that is also accessible to a wider popular audience, stakeholders and academics. Here is a preliminary effort, Refugee Voices Japan, while very much in progress, provides a glimpse of some of the ways which this is possible.  

Products related to this project

1. Website: Refugee Voices Japan 

a. This is the major publication push for our project, bringing film, still images and text together in a multi-media production that seeks to make the voices from Refugee Japan disseminated to a wider audience.  

b. Refugee Voices Japan 


2. Films: Refugees under Covid-19 


a. This is a 17-minute film that captures the struggle of 3 men in Shingawa Detention Center under the threat of infection. Directed and shot by Rosa Barbaran and produced by David Slater, the short film illustrates the direction we hope to take in the future.  

b. For Covid:; pw: 12345 


3. Academic article , The Whole Block Goes Down: Refugees in Japan’s detention centers during the pandemic,”  

a. Japan Focus, September 15, 2020, Volume 18 | Issue 18 | Number 2 ​

b. Slater, David. And Rosa Barbaran  

4. Visual Studies and Displacement in/to Japan (2024)

            Joint Research Unit between Institute of Comparative Culture And Free University of Berlin

All images from Refugee Voices Japan

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