Japan on Friday unveiled its guidelines on refugee recognition for the first time to facilitate greater transparency in the wake of criticism over its history of accepting far fewer refugees compared to Western countries.

The immigration agency said separately that Japan gave refugee status to 202 people in 2022, a record high since it began granting it in 1982. But the number lags behind that of European countries, where refugees are often taken in by their tens of thousands, and the United States which recently raised its admissions cap to 125,000.

Among the notable cases cited in the guidelines of an official handbook for immigration officials is the possibility of granting refugee status if applicants are deemed at risk of persecution in their home countries for their gender, or for identifying as a sexual minority.

Japanese Justice Minister Ken Saito speaks at a press conference in Tokyo on March 24, 2023. (Kyodo)

The handbook, compiled by the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, however, "does not expand the scope of recognition" already in use by immigration authorities and is also not meant to "increase the number of people granted refugee status," Justice Minister Ken Saito told a press conference.

But Saito said he expects that the enunciation of the agency guidelines will see applications get organized more appropriately.

"It is possible that there will be an increase in cases of swiftly granting refugee status," Saito said.

The handbook, to be used to decide whether refugee status criteria are met, was compiled based on precedents and court judgments as well as documents by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and guidelines in other countries.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Japan is a signatory, defines a refugee as "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion" and obliges member states to give them protection.

The handbook, which could be updated depending on new situations surrounding potential refugees, cites the possibility of recognizing fear of persecution in cases where sexual minorities are targeted with punishment or when women could face genital mutilation in their home countries due to local customs.

It also says that even if a single factor detrimental to an asylum seeker does not amount to fear of persecution at home, they could still be eligible for refugee status if multiple disadvantageous situations are taken into account.

Fear of persecution needs to be not an abstract danger but a "realistic one," the handbook says. But it also notes that fear of persecution cannot be denied just because the asylum seeker is not individually identified by those who would persecute them.

The Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees cast doubt over the effectiveness of the new handbook, saying, "There is no guarantee that the number of refugee recognition and protection will increase," as the agency has only compiled the document to help "better understand" the country's refugee recognition system.

"We cannot help but think that Japan's extremely low refugee recognition rate will not change going forward," the group said in a statement.

The group reiterated its call for refugee recognition to be conducted by an independent organization and for easing the heavy burden on applicants to prove their need to be recognized as refugees.

The agency compiled the guidelines after an expert panel within the Justice Ministry in December 2014 proposed enhancing the transparency and credibility of its refugee recognition process.

The agency also took into account the UNHCR's view on the issue.

The latest number of people granted refugee status surpassed the previous high of 74 in 2021, according to the agency's data, which included those who fled their home countries for reasons involving fear of racial and religious persecution.

People from Afghanistan were the largest group in 2022, making up 147 of the successful applicants, with many of them thought to be family members of the Japanese Embassy employees who fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in 2021.

The second largest group came from Myanmar at 26, following a military coup in February 2021 that toppled the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. China followed with nine successful applicants.