Ushiku (牛久, Thomas Ash, 2021)

Japan has famously tough immigration policy and despite having signed up to various international agreements is unique among developed nations in its reluctance to accept refugees. Making migration easier has often been posited as a potential solution to the nation’s declining birthrate and stagnant economy, but it’s one that has never found favour with those in power. An immigration bill that was due to go through the Diet in May 2021 which would have made deportations easier was in fact halted in part because of public outcry after a young woman sadly passed away in an immigration detention centre after staff allegedly ignored her pleas for medical assistance claiming that she was simply faking her symptoms in an effort to avoid deportation. To add insult to injury, the young woman was detained for overstaying on her visa after having attempted to get help from the police as she was suffering domestic violence. Having learned she had reported him, her boyfriend threatened revenge should she return to her home country.

Filmed mainly with hidden camera, such facilities do not allow photography of any kind, Thomas Ash’s unflinching documentary ventures inside a dentition centre for male refugees awaiting confirmation of their applications in Ushiku. Though some claim they are in a sense better off than they were for having a degree of safety, shelter, and freedom from hunger, the facility is indeed little better than a jail with those inside it treated as prisoners whose movements are heavily restricted and communications monitored. As another points out, at least if you’re in jail they have to tell you how long for whereas immigration detention is indefinite (also the case in the UK). Many of those sharing their stories have been in Ushiku for several years already and have no indication of when they might be released or eventually deported. 

The desperation of their circumstances has pushed some towards suicide, while hunger strikes have become a worryingly common form of protest as authorities often offer a temporary release on the condition the detainee agrees to resume eating only to pick them back up again shortly afterwards. One detainee uses a wheelchair as he is too weak to walk but that does not apparently prevent his rough treatment at the hands of immigration centre staff who attempted to deport him without notice, the attempt only halted when the airline refused to carry him. The central problem is that the government often refuses to recognise their status as refugees, claiming that they have simply declined to return to their birth countries rather than accepting that they cannot return because their lives would be in immediate danger. Many of the detainees recount seeing their friends and relatives murdered or their homes destroyed, knowing that to be sent back is as good as a death sentence. 

This remains the case even for those who have married Japanese women with some recounting that immigration officials have attempted to convince their wives that the relationship is not genuine and encourage them to divorce their foreign-born spouse. In the interests of transparency, actions inside the detention centre are videoed but the officers appear to act with impunity. Ash includes a lengthy and painful sequence of a detainee enduring violence at the hands of guards he claims have assaulted him off-camera, complaining that he can’t breathe while another of the guards argues with him as they insist he is “resisting” even though he is cuffed and motionless. Perhaps it’s surprising that the footage exists and is available, but then again perhaps they simply have no fear of accountability believing that few care about what goes on in this arcane system of which the general public remains largely unaware. 

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, 75% of detainees were granted a temporary release but this too is its own kind of prison as the refugees are still regarded as foreign nationals without the right to work leaving them entirely unable to support themselves if they have no access to a support network such as family, friends, or a charitable organisation willing to help. It goes without saying that neither can they access social support or medical care but remain in a perpetual limbo while they must also pay a deposit amount on leaving the detention centre. As one young man points out, many abscond while on temporary release but he chooses not to because he wants to live free with a legitimate social status and proper visa to build better life. Even so he wonders why he’s worse off for having done the “right” thing, imprisoned by an unforgiving government whose hostility may actually kill him. “Japan is a wonderful country but the government is cruel” the young man laments, left entirely without options other than to wait, indefinitely. An often harrowing account of what one opposition politician brands as a stain on their democracy, Ash’s unflinching humanitarian documentary is an eye-opening exposé of the bureaucratic heartlessness at the centre of a needlessly hostile and inhumane immigration system. 


Ushiku streams worldwide until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Movement to End Indefinite Detention in the UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sending Off (おみおくり〜Sending Off〜, Ian Thomas Ash, 2019)

Following his 2014 documentary -1287 which followed a woman suffering with terminal cancer, Ian Thomas Ash examines the process of dying, and its aftermath, from a more immediate perspective in Sending Off (おみおくり〜Sending Off〜, Omiokuri: Sending Off) which sees him accompany Dr. Kaoru Konta who provides palliative care for those, mostly very elderly, who are approaching the end of their lives and are otherwise being looked after at home by family members rather than in hospitals. 

While in the past it might have been much more normal to die at home and for ordinary people to be familiar with illness and death, it may now be more usual to be cared for by trained professionals at a medical facility. Most particularly in rural areas, however, that might mean being entirely removed from a local community with friends and relatives perhaps unable to be present as much as they would like and so elderly family members are largely looked after by loved ones. That sense of community is certainly something that the bereaved family at the first home are very grateful for, affirming that while people in the cities can be distant from each other, people will always come to help in the country and true their word, the house is filled with neighbours helping to prepare food at 8.30am the morning after an elderly relative passes peacefully in her sleep shortly after 2. 

At the second house, meanwhile, a son who has been painstakingly taking care of his elderly mother laments that he feels oppressed by the ritualistic elements of a traditional funeral but would be failing in his duty to give her a proper send off if he did not complete them properly. Mr. Endo had remained conflicted about telling his mother that her condition was terminal, helping to video some of her treatment himself, including a mobile bathing session and soothing ice afterwards so other relatives could see his mother enjoying her life even while its quality continued to decline, but admitting that he hopes her suffering will soon be over so that she can finally reunite with his late father. Mrs. Endo receives a typical Japanese Buddhist funeral in a local temple and is then cremated, the family participating in the traditional ritual of picking up the remaining bones with chopsticks and placing them carefully into an urn. Dr. Konta also attends the public memorial service and gives a eulogy, discussing her brief relationship with the late Mrs. Endo and remarking on her admiration for the Endo family. 

As she says, caring for those with no possibility of recovering can be emotionally difficult. Yet we often see her taking time to admire the beauty of nature whether in a well kept garden, field of flowers, or the landscape to and from appointments. She tries to do her best to offer care and advice not only to the patients but to those who are their primary care givers and will often be making difficult decisions on their behalf. One elderly couple she visits appear to be in quite good health and mostly able to look after themselves, but she worries that as they had no children and their other relatives, save a nephew they don’t seem keen to contact, are also elderly there is no one who they can call should one of them become seriously ill and unable to look after the other.  

Mr. Hata, meanwhile, has the opposite problem in that he is worried about leaving his wife behind when he dies especially he claims because she’s not so good at the practical stuff and he’s always taken care of that for her. Those familiar with Ian Thomas Ash’s work may already be acquainted with Mr. Hata as he became the subject of an ongoing social media project as Ash helped him reunite with the son he had lost contact with 30 years previously after separating from the child’s mother. “Regret and regret, sometimes enjoy life” is how Mr. Hata describes the business of living but declares himself satisfied with being happy in the moment, seeing this as a “happy ending” witnessing the cherry blossoms surrounded by people he loves. Capturing the process of dying as unobtrusively as possible and with absolute sensitivity, Ash can also be seen stepping in to help when needed while documenting both the highly ritualised processes of “sending off” a relative and the managing of grief which accompanies them. 


Sending Off is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (dialogue free)