Evacuees from Ukraine embark on new lives in Japan

More than 400 evacuees from Ukraine have arrived in Japan since Russia's invasion began in February. Some have endured a long, harrowing journey. They are now seeking support as they establish new lives a long way from home.

Maria Dovbash, 71, landed on March 18 after a trip that lasted seven days. She had a tearful reunion with her daughter, Nataliia, who lives in Japan.

"I'm really happy to be finally here," she told reporters at Narita airport, near Tokyo. But her voice trembled when she spoke about her family members who remain in Ukraine: "The hardest thing is that my sons and grandchildren are still there."

Maria is one of more than 4.5 million people who have fled the invasion. She left her home in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast as the Russians closed in.

Her daughter asked her to come to Japan, but she initially refused. She speaks neither English nor Japanese, and was reluctant to leave her loved ones.

Maria was living with one of her sons and his family. Males aged 18 to 60 are effectively banned from fleeing, so her only option was to leave them behind.

She finally took heed of her daughter's plea and made her way to Japan. In her bags she carried a bottle of honey and sweets: "I wanted to buy more for my grandchildren, but I didn't have time. Shelves in stores were already empty," she says.

It took Maria about 24 hours by train from Zaporizhzhia to reach a city in the country's west. She says the carriages were filled with evacuees. The train had to stop occasionally, and the lights were turned off at night to evade Russian shelling.

She then boarded a bus toward Poland, followed by a one-hour walk across the border. In Warsaw, she was helped by other Ukrainians and Polanders. She received her visa and headed to Tokyo via Zurich.

"It was tough all the way," she told NHK.

New life in Japan

Maria is now living with her daughter's family in Tokyo. She is trying to adjust to her new life and often cooks traditional Ukrainian dishes for her grandchildren.

"I really thank everybody who helped me get here. I wouldn't have made it without them," she says.

Still, Maria faces difficulties. She feels as though she can't go out alone. And when she visits a clinic to get prescription medication, she needs someone to help translate.

Nataliia thinks Maria is struggling with a sense of guilt about leaving behind her family members. She also worries her mother will feel lonely in Japan.

"I would like to ask you to put yourself in my mother's shoes," says Nataliia. She stresses the importance of Maria's psychological wellbeing, and wants her to find a way to communicate with Japanese people.

"I think it's important that my mother becomes useful to someone, and feels part of Japanese society. There should be something she can do where language barriers are not a problem, like cooking or origami," says Nataliia.

Maria and Nataliia at home in Tokyo
Maria Dovbash (left) evacuated from Ukraine. She is now with her daughter, Nataliia Lysenko (right), who lives in Tokyo

Japanese government works on support

The Japanese government says it plans to accept "as many Ukrainian evacuees as it can" from a humanitarian perspective. That includes people who have no ties to Japan.

Local municipalities, private companies and other organizations are also stepping forward to offer support, such as free accommodation and Japanese language courses.

Ogino Takahito, an Associate Professor at Toyo University, is knowledgeable about Japan's approach to accepting foreigners. He says the government's decision to accept evacuees was swift, and he also points out the need for long-term support.

Ogino's interview
Toyo University Associate Professor Ogino Takahito says long-term support will be required for the evacuees.

"Many support plans lack detail about who will continue taking care of the evacuees," he says. "They may have a problem with Japanese culture, even with local rules on trash, and they will need translators. Help from the community will be required on top of official support."

The evacuees have entered on short-term visas, which authorities have already said can be extended to one year. Ogino says this could be a turning point in terms of how Japan addresses refugee applications.

A strict policy currently in place means Japan accepts just a handful of refugees every year. In 2020, 47 out of 4,000 applications were successful.

Ogino hopes that the arrival of the evacuees from Ukraine will make Japanese society more accepting of displaced people.

For Maria, the goal is not to stay in Japan forever, but to eventually return to the country she knows and loves. "This is our family's story, but it's not only ours," Nataliia says. "We hope Japanese society keeps on supporting the evacuees until they can go home."