Japan's prewar Special Higher Police (Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu, or Tokko for short) was a "thought police" unit that cracked down hard on dissident in the name of maintenance of public law and order.

Those arrested were treated with extreme brutality.

It is well known that Takiji Kobayashi (1903-1933), an author of proletarian literature, was tortured to death.

One of the functions fulfilled by Tokko was immigration control of foreign nationals and management of affairs involving Koreans and other colonial subjects.   

After World War II, many Tokko officers escaped banishment from public office and ended up working in immigration control services in various capacities, according to international law scholar Yasuaki Onuma (1946-2018), who authored "Tan-itsu Minzoku Shakai no Shinwa wo Koete" (Beyond the myth of monoethnic society).

Could this old Tokko mentality still linger among Japan's immigration officials today?

A case in point concerns Wishma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman, at a detention facility operated by the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau.

The circumstances of her death in March were beyond shocking.

According to her support group, Sandamali became so debilitated that she could no longer eat or walk. A petition for her provisional release, filed by the group, was dismissed.

Sandamali had realized her dream of studying in Japan, but ran out of money to pay her tuition and overstayed her visa. She not only lost her legal status, but ended up losing her life.

A recent report in The Asahi Shimbun revealed that at least 21 people have died in detention since 1997, including five suicides.

A former immigration services official was quoted as saying that the appalling treatment of detainees owes partly to "the intransparency of the colossal authority vested on immigration services."

There exists in Japan a "human rights void" that has remained untouched. 

The manner in which the nation's immigration services are administered makes me even wonder if detainees are deliberately kept in harsh conditions to discourage them from trying to stay in Japan.             

What is really needed is a legal system that respects every detainee as a person.


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 22

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.