Review: Ushiku

Ian Thomas Ash’s documentary about foreign detainees in Japan’s immigration facilities is a pointedly activist work. In interviews Ash has said that his main purpose was to make the Japanese people understand what their government is doing in their name, and much of the footage depicts unnecessary cruelty in the carrying out of what the authorities deem their legal obligations to the state. In fact, it’s easy while watching the doc to get the feeling that the whole idea of basic human rights means something completely different to the Japanese authorities than what it means to most of the rest of us—including the average Japanese citizen—who have grown up in what is generally referred to as liberal democracy. Ash is counting on this dynamic to gain traction with Japanese viewers, so the difficult part is getting them to see the movie in the first place.

He’s thus undertaken a Japanese media blitz that has been successful on the one hand—almost all of the press outlets who would likely be sympathetic to his cause have covered the movie uncritically—but on the other hand that coverage may be counterproductive in that many of these outlets have dwelled more on the process of the filmmaking than on the theme of human rights abuse. The Mainichi Shimbun, for instance, which is perhaps Japan’s most left-center national daily, ran an article recently that focused on the fact that Ash recorded much of the footage inside the East Japan Immigration Center in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, without permission, since cameras are not allowed in the facility. Though Mainichi acknowledges the cruelty on display and that the average Japanese person probably should know more about it, by concentrating on Ash’s subterfuge it makes the movie out to be something that it really isn’t. Ash is not trying to set anyone in the system up. He is simply trying to convey a truth that’s hidden. Reading the Mainichi report, I got the sense that the reporter was slightly bothered that Ash had broken rules to get what he needed, no matter how laudable the end result may be.

That end result is all the more effective for the way Ash interacts with his subjects, the detainees themselves, who represent a wide range of nationalities and sensibilities. There are several disturbing images of immigration staff subduing “uncooperative” detainees with brute force. The facility’s explanation is always the same and they count on people’s acceptance of this work as “protecting” the public rather than administering immigration protocols, the implication being that these detainees are criminals, though for the most part the only things they did wrong was coming to Japan without proper pre-vetting and/or messing up on their paperwork. (Not to mention that many are forced by necessity to work illegally for Japanese employers who are never prosecuted for hiring them.) Most of the detainees came to Japan seeking asylum without fully understanding that Japan does not consider itself a “refuge,” even though it has signed agreements with international bodies to accept refugees. If Ushiku has a drawback it’s that it doesn’t fully explain the bureaucratic mindset that’s behind the cruelty—the idea that while oppressed people should have their human rights respected, it’s difficult to guarantee within Japan’s vaguely defined concept of civil rights, which only exist for native Japanese people. In other words, refugees’ (or any foreign person’s) human rights don’t supersede the Japanese state’s “obligation” to protect itself from what it sees as disruption to public order, which is what foreigners still represent to a certain degree. That kind of edification, however, is not really Ash’s purview, and as far as his movie being a visceral condemnation of Japanese policy rather than an intellectual one, he was right to listen to his conscience. 

In English and Japanese with English and Japanese subtitles. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Ushiku home page in Japanese and English

photo (c) 2022 Ushiku

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