In the face of public pressure, can Japan still remain silent on the Xinjiang issue?

Harmat Roz, an ethnic Uighur Muslim living in Japan. More and more people in Japan are learning about the crackdown in Rozi’s home country of Xinjiang.

Last summer, Halmat Rozi, a Uighur Muslim living in Japan, received a video call from his brother from the Xinjiang region of western China. His brother said he wanted Rozi to meet someone: a Chinese security official.

China’s top leader Xi Jinping had been invited to visit Japan, and the official had some questions he wanted to ask. Are Roz and other Uighur rights activists planning a protest? Who is the leader of the group? What kind of work are they doing? The official assured him in a second video call that Roz’s family in China would be well taken care of if he cooperated.

The official’s intent was clear – to prevent Roz from doing anything that might damage China’s reputation in Japan. The warning had the opposite effect. Roz invited NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting and television agency, to secretly record a second video call that was later broadcast to millions of viewers.

That video provided a rare opportunity to see Beijing’s moves to draw in and intimidate Chinese minorities abroad, and it also helped give Japan a better understanding of China’s crackdown on the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

For years, the Japanese government has been wary of China, and this incident in turn increases the pressure on that government to take tough measures against China. Japan’s previous caution has put it at odds with its Western allies on the Xinjiang issue.

So far, Japan has expressed only “grave concern” about the fate of the Uighurs. In recent years, thousands of Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps that critics say are designed to eliminate their ethnic identity. Japan is the only G-7 country that did not participate in last month’s unified campaign to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over the situation in Xinjiang, which the U.S. government has declared a genocide.

Uighur protesters in Osaka, Japan, 2019.

China’s ruling Communist Party denies allegations of genocide in Xinjiang and is unlikely to cave in to any pressure on its policy, which it considers necessary to combat “terrorist extremism. But if Japan were to fully join the effort to force China to end human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it would add a critical Asian voice to the Western campaign.

As in the West, Japanese public opinion of China has hardened in recent years, including on Xinjiang, Beijing’s suppression of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, and its military presence in the waters off Japan.

After years of ambivalence toward China, “public opinion has clearly shifted” and “suddenly become extremely harsh,” said Ichiro Koume, a China expert at Tokyo’s Kanda University of International Studies. It has suddenly become extremely harsh.

In some respects, the Japanese government has hardened its tone toward China. Last month, when two U.S. Cabinet officials visited Tokyo, they signed a joint statement with Japanese officials criticizing China’s “coercive and destabilizing behavior” in the Asia-Pacific region as a violation of the “international order.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met in Tokyo.

But Japanese leaders and businesses have strong reasons to hold off on China because it is an important market for Japanese exports and investment. Any rhetoric seen as critical can quickly backfire, as Swedish fashion retailer H&M learned last month – the target of a boycott by Chinese nationalists over concerns about allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry in Xinjiang.

By contrast, Japanese retailer MUJI, which has more than 200 stores in mainland China, recently announced that it will continue to use cotton from Xinjiang despite these allegations.

However, despite the economic and geopolitical risks, a growing number of lawmakers are calling on Japan to defend the rights of Uighurs. Members of parliament are working on legislation that would give the government the power to impose sanctions for human rights violations. Japanese politicians from all walks of life are urging Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to cancel Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan before it is postponed for the second time due to the new coronavirus outbreak.

Japan’s Uighur community, though estimated at less than 3,000, has become visible in the past year as they have urged the government to take action. Roz’s story has played no small role. Since airing his call with Chinese security officials last year, Roz, who speaks fluent Japanese, has appeared in the news media and on a parliamentary panel discussing abuses in Xinjiang.

In recent months, the stories of other Uighurs have also become more widely known to Japanese readers, with a best-selling graphic novel telling the testimonies of women who have been held in internment camps in Xinjiang.

As awareness of China’s human rights abuses grows within Japan, political factions are increasingly concerned about China’s behavior.

A 2018 propaganda image from Hotan, Xinjiang, shows China’s top leader Xi Jinping with elderly Uighurs.

For years, expressing dissatisfaction with China’s treatment of ethnic minorities has been considered a matter for Japan’s hawkish right-wing forces. Centrists and leftists often saw it as an excuse for Japan to abandon postwar pacifism and pursue regional hegemony.

But China’s behavior in Xinjiang has forced many liberals to change their views as well. Even the Japanese Communist Party has called it a “gross violation of human rights.

“China says it’s a domestic issue, but we have to deal with it as an international issue,” Ryo Kasai, a member of the Japanese Diet and one of the top strategists of the Japanese Communist Party, said in a recent interview.

Last summer, nearly 40 members of the Japanese legislature formed a committee to rethink Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing. In February, a conservative parliamentary committee with a long history of promoting Uighur rights expanded its membership to include lawmakers from Japan’s center-left opposition parties.

The groups are pushing the legislature to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. government, Canada and the Dutch parliament in declaring China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide, said Shiori Yamao, a lawmaker from the opposition party.

The lawmakers said they are also looking at a Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Act, a U.S. bill that has been used to sanction government officials who direct human rights abuses around the world.

It’s unclear how much of an impact these efforts will have. Roz believes lawmakers will not go so far as to accuse China of genocide, but he hopes Japan will impose sanctions.

Roz protested China’s Uighur policies in Tokyo last month

Roz came to Japan in 2005 to pursue graduate studies in engineering and eventually opened a construction company and a barbecue restaurant in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo. He said he stayed out of politics at the time and avoided any activities that might be seen as unfavorable by the Chinese government.

In 2018, he learned that several members of his wife’s family had been detained, and then everything changed. Under strict security controls, he had little to no contact with his family.

Convinced that he needed to speak up, this experience convinced Roz to join the protests demanding that China close the internment camps. Soon after, he became a prominent voice in the Uighur community in Japan, appearing in the media, meeting with politicians, and holding seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received an unexpected phone call from his brother, he knew his actions had caught the attention of Chinese officials.

Roz said the Chinese government has made no further attempts to contact him since his appearance on Japanese public broadcasters. His phone calls to his family have also gone unanswered.

He is worried for his relatives. But he says it was worth it to get the word out: “Now, almost everyone here knows about the Uighur problem.”

Roz is at his barbecue restaurant in a Tokyo suburb. He says he stayed out of politics until his wife’s family was detained in Xinjiang.