Japanese media and the ghost of Sunny Okafor, a Nigerian immigrant who starved to death in protest


“But the press has helped make Okafor’s death a non-story, spreading state propaganda that diminishes the significance of the death, and then responding to that propaganda with opinion essays instead of ‘investigations.’

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

A plan to overhaul Japan’s detention system, scuttled in 2021 after the death of inmate Wishma Rathnayake and a resulting wave of protests, was particularly unpopular with Japanese diplomats. Until recently, MoFA relied on the press to guard against legislative assaults on immigrants, quietly passing sensitive information to reporters covering the Justice Department, which enforces immigration law.

According to MoFA officials who have served as my sources during the 10 years that I have covered immigration, their current reluctance to cooperate with journalists is linked to the feeling among agency staff that the media is become “much louder, but much less effective” on immigration issues.

Officials I spoke with traced this issue back to 2019, when an inmate starved to death at a detention center in Nagasaki after a four-week hunger strike.

The Ministry of Justice cleared the detention center of any wrongdoing, releasing a report containing several defamatory statements against the detainee. He was not, as the department’s findings suggest, a hardened criminal or a good-for-nothing father, neither according to court records nor according to his family.

The report went on to say that it was not 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 2019 at the during which the inmate pleaded to be deported. As one MoFA official drily observed, “May comes after January.”

The death was covered in major Japanese newspapers, as well as various global media. All printed the government’s claims without attempting to verify them. Not a single journalist has managed to confirm the identity of the detainee, originally from southeastern Nigeria, who came to Japan 19 years earlier to seek work in the leather tanneries of Hyogo prefecture. His name was Gerald “Sunny” Okafor.

An important story about the destruction of a family has been overlooked. Okafor’s widow, who is deaf, struggled to raise her daughter on her own after her husband’s arrest, pushing her to the brink of psychological collapse. Immigration officials took advantage of her vulnerability, pressuring her to file for divorce and promising – hypocritically – that it would speed Okafor’s release.

The media also failed to uncover any administrative misconduct at the detention centre, leading Mr Okafor to believe that steps were being taken to expedite his return to Nigeria. After learning that was not true, he refused to receive intravenous fluids, hastening his death. The Nigerian Embassy helped the Ministry of Justice cover up these errors, leaving a paper trail in Okafor’s immigration file.

The success of this cover-up 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 had it possessed greater powers of coercion – the power to sanction its lawyers, for example, if they pushed too aggressively for the release of their customer.

But the press has helped make Okafor’s death a non-story, spreading state propaganda that downplays the significance of the death, then responding to that propaganda with opinion essays instead of surveys.

“The media approaches the immigration debate as an ideological issue, rather than a test of the integrity of Japanese institutions,” observed a MoFA official who has followed Mr. Okafor’s case. “It doesn’t help people in government who are trying to fix the system, because it doesn’t change their minds. This only inflames existing disagreements.

If disobeying the instructions of immigration officials becomes a criminal offence, as the government has now proposed, it will be made possible by the breakdown of non-partisan relations between trusted elements of the Japanese government and their counterparts in the hurry.

In an age of journalism where editorial decisions are shaped by web traffic and algorithms, the loss of knowledgeable sources may not be a concern for all media professionals. Journalists did not need to speak to anyone who knew Mr Okafor to write about him, or to decide that it was no longer necessary to write about him – even when parliament was debating legislation resulting from his death.

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


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


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