TOKYO — A professional soccer player from Myanmar who publicly opposed the military junta that staged a coup in his country won asylum in Japan on Friday, a rare development in a country known for its notoriously unwelcoming immigration system.
The athlete, Ko Pyae Lyan Aung, came to Japan with Myanmar’s national team for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Asia this year. While on the field before the first match, he flashed a three-fingered salute — a gesture made popular by the movie “The Hunger Games” and that has become a sign of resistance in his home country.
His small protest triggered intense news coverage that put him in a national spotlight. The gesture also brought concern that his life could be in danger if he returned home. Shortly before boarding a flight back, he asked Japanese immigration agents at passport control for asylum, gambling that he was better off taking a chance on Japan’s system than the forgiveness of the junta, which has brutally crushed the opposition since its Feb. 1 coup.
Japan accepts less than 1 percent of asylum seekers each year, and it approved only 47 asylum applications last year. The system came in for blistering criticism after the death of a Sri Lankan migrant in a detention cell. Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s case also put attention on the reluctance of the Japanese government to take a firm stance against the junta’s actions in Myanmar. While Japanese officials have denounced the military’s actions, they have declined to join the United States and other countries in applying sanctions. More than 1,000 people have died at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces, according to a tally kept by a monitoring group that tracks the killings. Thousands are in detention.
Japan has, however, allowed people from Myanmar to apply for visas on a provisional basis. Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung received a certificate on Friday attesting to his asylum status from the Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, he thanked Japan for approving his asylum application and said that he had found a position with a third-tier Japanese soccer club in the port city of Yokohama and would be looking for additional work to support himself.
“Now that I’ve received residence status, I can live worry free here in Japan,” he said, adding that he had not given up on his dream of going professional full time.
Mr. Pyae Lyan Aung’s lawyer, Yoshihiro Sorano, praised the Japanese government for its decision, but noted that there were still many more people from Myanmar in Japan who could face political persecution if they returned home.
“It’s Japan’s duty to think of a way that Myanmar can build a society that doesn’t produce refugees,” he said.