Japanese Media And The Ghost Of Sunny Okafor—Nigerian Immigrant Who Starved To Death In Protest

"But the press has helped to turn Okafor’s death into a non-story, by disseminating state propaganda that diminishes the death’s significance, then responding to that propaganda with opinion essays instead of investigations."

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) is a strange institution. It’s responsible for the way Japan is perceived abroad, and it decides who receives the opportunity to immigrate. Senior MoFA officials can only watch in dismay as less prestigious agencies, including some of Japan’s most corrupt, devise legislation that erodes the rights of immigrants and damages Japan’s international reputation.

A proposed overhaul of Japan’s detention system, scuttled in 2021 after the death of detainee Wishma Rathnayake and a resulting wave of protests, was especially unpopular with Japanese diplomats. Until recently, MoFA relied on the press to guard against legislative aggression toward immigrants, quietly passing sensitive information to reporters who covered the Ministry of Justice, which enforces immigration law.

According to MoFA officials who acted as my sources during the 10 years I covered immigration, their current reluctance to cooperate with journalists is related to the sense, among the agency’s staff, that the media has become “much louder, but much less effective” on issues of immigration.

The officials I spoke with traced this problem to 2019, when a detainee starved to death at a detention center in Nagasaki, following a four-week hunger strike.

The Ministry of Justice cleared the detention center of wrongdoing, issuing a report that contained several defamatory statements about the detainee. He was not, as the ministry’s findings suggested, a hardened criminal or a deadbeat father—not according to court records, not according to his family.

The report went on to claim that it wasn’t possible to return the detainee to Nigeria because he refused to cooperate with the deportation process in January 2019. But the report also documented a meeting in May of 2019 where the detainee begged to be deported. As one MoFA official dryly observed, “May comes after January.”

The death was covered in Japan’s major newspapers, as well as a variety of global outlets. All of them printed the government’s claims without attempting to verify them. Not a single reporter succeeded in confirming the identity of the detainee, a native of southeastern Nigeria who came to Japan 19 years earlier to look for work in the leather tanneries of Hyogo Prefecture. His name was Gerald “Sunny” Okafor.

An important story about the destruction of a family was overlooked. Okafor’s widow, who is deaf, struggled to raise her daughter alone after her husband was detained, pushing her to the brink of psychological collapse. Immigration officials took advantage of her vulnerability, pressuring her to file for divorce and promising—disingenuously—that it would expedite Okafor’s release.

The media also failed to uncover administrative malpractice at the detention center, which led Mr. Okafor to believe that steps were being taken to expedite his return to Nigeria. After learning this wasn’t true, he refused to receive intravenous fluids, precipitating his death. The Nigerian embassy helped the Ministry of Justice cover up these mistakes, leaving a paper trail in Okafor’s immigration file.

The success of this cover-up has undermined the best opportunity to sink the proposed immigration reforms, which were developed in response to Okafor’s death. The reforms are based on the insulting notion that the detention center could have saved Okafor if it had possessed greater powers of coercion—the power to sanction his attorneys, for instance, if they pushed too aggressively for their client’s release.

But the press has helped to turn Okafor’s death into a non-story, by disseminating state propaganda that diminishes the death’s significance, then responding to that propaganda with opinion essays instead of investigations.

“The media approaches the immigration debate as an ideological matter, rather than a test of the integrity of Japan’s institutions,” observed one MoFA official who monitored Mr. Okafor’s case. “That’s not helpful to people in government who are trying to fix the system, because it doesn’t change anybody’s mind. It only inflames existing disagreements.”

If disobeying the instructions of immigration officials becomes a criminal offense, as the government has now proposed, it will be made possible by the collapse of non-partisan relationships between trustworthy elements of Japan’s government and their counterparts in the press.

In an era of journalism where editorial decisions are shaped by web traffic and algorithms, the loss of knowledgeable sources may not strike every media professional as a matter of concern. Reporters didn’t need to speak with anyone who knew Mr. Okafor in order to write about him, or to decide that it was no longer necessary to write about him — even as parliament debated legislation that resulted from his death.

“They got the answers they needed,” Okafor’s widow observed in our most recent correspondence. “And in such a convenient way: from no one, from nowhere.”

For six years, Dreux Richard covered Japan’s Nigerian community for a daily newspaper in Tokyo. His first book, Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century, was published by Pantheon in 2021. This article originally appeared in Japan Today and has been edited for our audience.