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FILE PHOTO - A Japanese flag flutters atop the Bank of Japan building under construction in Tokyo, Japan, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan accepted just three refugees in the first half of 2017 despite receiving a record 8,561 fresh asylum applications, the government said on Tuesday, highlighting the nation's reluctance to accept foreigners.

Only four refugees were accepted in the first half of 2016, when fresh asylum applications totalled 5,011, the Justice Ministry said. The Human Rights Watch in January described Japan's record on asylum seekers as "abysmal".

Unlike other industrialized nations, which have accepted or even encouraged immigration to refresh their labour force, Japan has remained unwelcoming, even though its shrinking, ageing population is a key reason behind the economy's slow growth.

Supporters of Japan's tough asylum process argue that the small number accepted is a consequence of a surge in bogus applications due to changes made to rules in 2010 allowing applicants to work after six months until a decision is made on their claims.

"There appears to have been an increase in the number of people who are abusing the refugee status process," said Yasuhiro Hishida, an official who reviews applications at the Justice Ministry.

(Reporting by Ami Miyazaki; writing by Tim Kelly; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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