Photo/IllutrationDeputy Prime Minister Taro Aso gives a speech in front of JR Gifu-Hashima Station in Hashima, Gifu Prefecture, on Oct. 14. (Maho Yoshikawa)

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s words of warning have been roundly criticized and ridiculed, but his remarks have spooked a few people.

“To be honest, I am scared of fake refugees,” someone posted on the Internet.

Aso, who is also finance minister, has twice said that Japan must prepare for a possible wave of armed refugees if a crisis involving North Korea erupts.

“We have to prepare for a lot of refugees coming to Japan,” Aso said in a speech Oct. 14 in support for a candidate of Liberal Democratic Party in Hashima, Gifu Prefecture.

“They are illegal refugees,” he continued. “They might carry weapons. Terrorism might occur. We have to prepare our government to deal with such a situation.”

Aso was not clear what he meant by “armed refugees” and “illegal refugees” or who these people could be.

His words have been criticized at home and overseas as baseless fear-mongering that runs counter to international norms concerning refugees.

“His words show a lack of understanding and spread a wrongful image about refugees,” said Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer who deals with refugee issues. “He is fanning a sense of crisis.”

An international convention on the status of refugees defines them as people who cannot return to their own countries because of the threat of persecution.

Refugees might carry weapons in their escape from persecution. But those intending attacks on other countries are recognized as militants or terrorists, not refugees.

In addition, the international convention stipulates countries should not punish refugees even if they enter illegally.

For Aso, the answer is not so clear.

“They could be armed refugees. Would the response come from the police or defense operations by the Self-Defense Forces? Would they be shot? We must give this some serious thought,” Aso said on Sept. 23.

Later on the same day, Niigata Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama used Twitter to thrice describe Aso’s comments as strange.

“If armed enemies attack us, it makes sense to counter with our full efforts. But if not, refugees are refugees regardless of their countries of origin. They should be properly protected based on international law,” Yoneyama said in a tweet.

An official of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement Sept. 26, saying Aso’s words don’t match international rules on refugee protection.

“It is extremely regrettable,” the statement said about Aso’s comment.

However, a number of Japanese citizens are taking Aso’s warnings seriously. On the Internet, they have posted on reminders that the government has the role to protect Japanese residents, and called for measures to deal with the potential threat of weapon-toting refugees.

“We are assuming a series of measures, such as screening procedures, to determine if the refugees need protection,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in the Diet in April.

Abe said refugees are checked for weapons before the land in Japan. Those deemed in need of protection are then sent to shelters.

Aso’s concerns could stem from discussions overseas about terrorists disguising themselves as refugees to gain entry to countries.

Anti-refugee sentiment rose in Europe after a terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015. One of the suspects had been registered as a refugee in Greece.

In January, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered travel ban against seven countries, including Middle East nations, citing the need to protect America from terrorists.

“Aso’s remarks can be interpreted to mean that Japan is exclusionary in its diplomatic policy (on refugees),” said Hirotaka Watanabe, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies who specializes in international relations. “I think that it is necessary to have realistic preparations, such as enhancing security, instead of just raising humanitarianism. But it’s important to show a posture of accepting refugees as much as possible.”

He said failure to do so will make Japan appear reluctant to deal with the global refugee problem while other countries make efforts and take risks.

“There would be no problem if we think only about Japan. But Japan’s presence in the international community will weaken in the long term,” Watanabe said.