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FOCUS June 2022 Volume 108

"Ushiku"- Documenting Human Rights Violations in Japan

Jefferson R. Plantilla

The website of the documentary film "Ushiku" describes what it is all about:1

Ushiku takes viewers deep into the psychological and physical environment inhabited by foreign detainees in one of the largest immigration centres in Japan. On the eve of Japan's recent - and highly contentious - immigration reform efforts, the media blackout the government has imposed on its immigration centres is bypassed, bringing viewers into immediate contact with the detainees, many of whom are refugees seeking asylum. Detainees are held indefinitely and subject to violent deportation attempts by Japanese authorities against a background of the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic and with the spectacle of the Tokyo Olympics looming on the immediate horizon.

The interview of detainees was video-recorded in secret (without permission from the detention center officials) in order to report what the detainees say as human rights violations in the center.

The film presents the testimonies of nine people on their condition inside the Immigration Center in Ushiku City, Ibaraki Prefecture. The detainees have pending applications to stay in Japan. In most cases, the detainees are deported from detention. When they refuse deportation, they are "re-detained." Some have been detained for several years.

The detainees, interviewed several times over several months, express their worsening physical and mental conditions. Some appeared on wheelchairs due to illness or weakness due to hunger strike. The interviewed detainees seem to suffer from depression and other mental health problems. The film includes an official video from the detention center showing physical abuse in the way a detainee was restrained.

The film raises serious questions on why such human rights violations have remained in Japan's detention centers until the present. This issue has long been the subject of appeals by Japanese organizations supporting those in the immigration detention centers.2

Some of the detainees were given temporary freedom (known as "Provisional Release") but were not given legal permission to work to support their needs. One of the interviewed detainees contemplated suicide for being alone and without money, while staying out of the detention center.

Motivation in Making the Film

The Director, Thomas Ash, made an official statement about the documentary:3

My motivation was not to make a film, but rather as a witness to human rights violations, I felt morally compelled to document evidence in the form of filming the detainees' testimonies; to document their truth.

He noted the need to address the violation of human rights of detainees in Japan's immigration centers illustrated by the4

death of Wishma Sandamali Rathnayake in March 2021, who had been detained for 7 months at an immigration centre in Nagoya, and the deaths of 16 others over the past 15 years, [that] demonstrate[...] why so many supporters are concerned about the health and wellbeing of people suffering in indefinite detention [in] Japan.

The issue of indefinite detention and the abusive treatment of the detainees are the main focuses of "Ushiku."

The Director and Film Festivals

Thomas Ash was a former English language teacher under the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) in Tochigi prefecture from 2000 to 2003.5 He subsequently made films mostly about social issues in Japan. As described by an international film festival, Ash is6

a director, editor, producer and writer based in Japan. His documentaries on health and medicine in the country have covered topics such as children living in areas of Fukushima impacted by the nuclear meltdown, end-of-life care, and male sex workers.

"Ushiku" earned awards in film festivals in several countries including Nippon Docs Award (Audience Award) at the 2021 Nippon Connection Film Festival (Germany), First Prize in Asian Competition at the 2021 DMZ Docs FF (Korea) and Camera Japan Award (Audience Award) at the 2021 Camera Japan Festival (Holland).7 It was shown in the online Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2021,8 Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) in 2021, Japan Square ? Filmfestival 2022 (Belgium),9 among others.10

"Ushiku" started to be shown in theaters in different parts of Japan from February 2022 and is slated to be shown in thirty-five cities, but that number is still increasing.

Documenting Human Rights Violations

The value of "Ushiku" as a documentation of human rights violations in Japan is not affected by the lack of permission from the detention center to video-record the interviews. The interviewed detainees agreed to reveal to the general public in Japan and other countries the problems they face in the detention center. On the supposed lack of consent of one of the interviewed detainees, the detained person made an online statement about his full agreement to the inclusion of his interview in the film.11 The interviewed detainees took the risk of speaking out about their situation despite the fear of possible abuse later on inside the detention center.

The film shows the problem of inadequate scrutiny of the immigration detention system in Japan. It challenges the Japanese government to prove that its detention system protects the human rights of the non-Japanese detainees, and to hold its officers properly accountable for violations whenever they occur.12

"Ushiku" is not about the application of the detainees for permission to stay in Japan or to obtain refugee status, or the Japanese refugee acceptance system. It simply aims to raise public awareness on the situation of detainees and the need for the detention centers to protect their human rights.

Ash expresses his hope about the documentary film:13

"My hope is that people who see the film will want to know more about the issues and will investigate it further. I've gotten involved by making the film, but everyone has a different role to play. I hope it will lead to a range of actions. Even just talking to someone else is something. If more people learn about the issues, it could lead to a solution. What I fear the most is indifference."

Jefferson R. Plantilla is a Researcher at HURIGHTS OSAKA. The author thanks Thomas Ash for providing additional information in this article.

For further information, please contact Jefferson R. Plantilla at


1 牛久 Ushiku,
2 See Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Statement on the Death of the Detainee in the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau,
3 Director's Statement,
4 Director's Statement, ibid.
5 "Ushiku Film Screening and Q&A," JetWit,
6 Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), 4 December 2021,
7 Ushiku press kit provided by Thomas Ash via e-mail dated 28 April 2022.
8 Perspectives Japan section of the Yamagata International Documentary Festival, October 9, 2021, YIDFF Online,
9 Jochen Meeus, Japan Square 2022 trailer, Japan Square, 24 March 2022,
10 See Ushiku Film website for the film festivals where the film was awarded and/or shown: and also in DocumentingIan website:
11 Seeディレクターズ・ステートメント (Director's Statement) in Japanese language,
12 See Japan Federation of Bar Associations, op. cit.
13 Matsumoto Takuya, "Ushiku" Director Thomas Ash Discusses His Covert Reporting on Immigration Detainees,, 15 April 2022,