By Thomas Wilson
TOKYO (Reuters) - Two Syrian asylum seekers on Tuesday lost a bid to overturn a government decision to deny them refugee status, in the first such lawsuit in Japan since civil war erupted in the Middle Eastern state in 2011.
The Tokyo District Court upheld a government ruling made five years ago, that the pair's bid for asylum was not admissible under international refugee law.
"The world understands the Syrian situation - it's getting worse. But the Japanese court hasn't understood that at all," one of the plaintiffs, Joude Youssef, told a news conference.
Speaking in Arabic through a Japanese interpreter, Youssef said he planned to appeal the court's decision.
The second asylum seeker was not at the news conference.
Lawyers said Youssef had the right to stay in Japan, under a humanitarian status that allows residency but not full refugee rights. It was not clear if the second plaintiff would appeal.
Immigration and asylum are sensitive subjects in Japan, where many pride themselves on cultural and ethnic homogeneity even amid a shrinking population and the worst labor shortage since the 1970s.
Youssef, a Kurd from the north of Syria, had applied for asylum in Japan in 2012, after saying he was persecuted for organizing pro-democracy demonstrations.
The Japanese government rejected the claim a year later, saying he lacked proof of his involvement in protests in Syria.
The second plaintiff had claimed asylum after refusing military service in Syria.
Although a major donor to international aid organizations, Japan has remained reluctant to take in refugees.
It accepted only 20 last year, with a record 19,628 people applying for asylum.
Japan has said the majority of those seeking asylum do so for economic reasons. In January it limited asylum seekers' right to work, as it looks to stamp out what it calls the abuse of the asylum system.
More than 5.4 million people have fled from Syria since 2011, according to the U.N. refugee agency, with most seeking safety in other Middle Eastern countries and Europe.
Some 81 Syrians have sought asylum in Japan during that period, with only 12 awarded refugee status, the Justice Ministry said. Another 56 have been allowed to stay for humanitarian reasons.
(Reporting by Thomas Wilson; Additional reporting by Ami Miyazaki; Editing by Robert Birsel)