No, Japan’s actually not a xenophobic country – Asia Times

No, Japan's actually not a xenophobic country - Asia Times

Joe Biden made a casual remark at a charity the other day that I believe to be his worst error in the entire time he has been leader. He declared that two of America’s most significant friends, India and Japan, are” xenophobic”, and placed them in the same category as Russia and China:

” You know, one of the reasons our economy is growing is because of you and many others. Why? Because we welcome newcomers. We look to – the explanation – appearance, think about it– why is China stalling but badly financially? Why is Japan having problems? Why is Russia? Why is India? Because they’re prejudiced. They do n’t want immigrants”, Biden said, according to an official White House transcript.

This was incredibly stupid from a political point because it insults our supporters while gaining little. It’s even a small dishonest, given that Biden just&nbsp, vowed to block a Chinese steel company &nbsp, from acquiring US Steel on very thin reasons — not to mention all the&nbsp, limiting measures&nbsp, Biden&nbsp, has taken&nbsp, towards&nbsp, immigration&nbsp, over the course of his presidency in order to appease the US government. Glass homes, etc.

The White House should have walked the reply back and apologized, but rather it&nbsp, defended the note, saying it was part of a “broader place”. We should be a little skeptical about the US’s ability to form a global alliance of democracies in the years to come because even a Political administration can thus lightly insult important allies.

But beyond the diplomatic idiocy of the quip, it’s just not technically true. Although I do n’t have enough knowledge of India to make a judgment, I do have some knowledge of Japan, and the common misconception that it’s a xenophobic nation that does n’t want immigrants is a myth.

Second, I think we should determine our requirements below. Every nation’s population shares a certain degree of racism. And every country has some additional wariness of large- scale immigration that does n’t rise to the level of what we’d probably be willing to call” xenophobia”, since” xenophobia” is an insulting word.

This is why no country on the planet has anything even remotely approaching an available- border policy — no Canada, not Sweden, no Singapore, and definitely not the United States.

So when I say” Japan is not a xenophobic country”, what I mean is that it’s not&nbsp, abnormally&nbsp, xenophobic. If you want to call every country in the world” xenophobic”, well, fine, that’s your prerogative, but I think that renders the word a little useless.

Anyway, there are a few basic facts we can look at in order to gauge Japan’s level of xenophobia. First, we can see how many immigrants Japan actually receives. Second, we can examine the rules it employs to determine who is allowed to travel. And third, we have data on Japanese attitudes toward immigration.

Immigrant flows and policies

It is true that there was a small immigration in Japan up until recently during the postwar era. That changed slowly starting in the 1990s, and then in 2013, when the late&nbsp, Abe Shinzo came to power, it began to change even faster.

Recognizing Japan’s dire demographic situation, Abe resolved to open up the country to immigration. The end result was a sea change that had a profound impact on Japan.

First, let’s look at some numbers. Here is the number of foreign nationals who are recognized as permanent residents of Japan:

By Yuasan –  Own work; Data from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research ( IPSS)

In fact, this chart is misleading because almost none of the” Koreans” in Japan — the orange line on the graph — are actually Korean. They are what’s commonly known as&nbsp, zainichi&nbsp, — people of Korean descent who were born in Japan and usually only speak Japanese but who have Korean passports – because Japan does not have birthright citizenship.

Zainichi people are free to take Japanese citizenship at any time, and over time&nbsp, most have been doing this, and/or intermarrying, which is why the orange section on the chart is shrinking.

In other words, the increase in foreigners ‘ numbers in Japan is even more recent and significant than the chart suggests. In the 1980s, Japan deserved its reputation as a country that did n’t accept immigrants.

In the 1990s, there was a migration of people from China and Brazil, with the latter largely being ethnically Japanese, followed by the Philippines. In the post- Abe age, there has been an explosion of Vietnamese immigration, in addition to an influx from India and various other countries.

As of 2023, there were&nbsp, 3.2 million foreign residents &nbsp, of Japan. That’s 2.6 % of the country’s population. That might not sound like a lot, and it ‘s&nbsp, not&nbsp, a lot compared to countries in Europe or the Anglosphere. In fact, it’s lower than&nbsp, the world average&nbsp, of 3.5 %. However, the rate of change is significant because it represents a very steep increase over a very short period of time. The stock of immigrants in Japan is not large, but the flow is substantial.

And if you’re talking about Japan&nbsp, right now, the flow is what you should look at, not the stock. The Japan of 2024 is not the Japan of 1984. These Westerners are used to thinking about Japan through the lens of century-old essentialist stereotypes, but Japanese social attitudes and political policies tend to change a lot over time.

We can see that Japan’s decision to import all of those people was a deliberate outcome of government policy. Here is&nbsp, what I wrote for Bloomberg in 2019:

In 2017 Japan&nbsp, implemented&nbsp, fast- track permanent residency for skilled workers. In 2018 it&nbsp, passed&nbsp, a law that will greatly expand the number of blue- collar work visas, and — crucially —&nbsp, provide&nbsp, these workers with a path to permanent residency if they want it.

These changes thus represent true immigration, as opposed to temporary&nbsp, guest- worker policies&nbsp, ( despite the common use of the term “guest worker law” to describe the new visas ) …Permanent residents &nbsp, are allowed&nbsp, to apply for Japanese citizenship after five years. Some foreigners will also wed Japanese citizens, giving birth to their children as well.

And this is from&nbsp, a recent article in the Spectator:

In June 2023 Prime Minister Fumio Kishida&nbsp, expanded a visa&nbsp, which allowed foreign laborers and their families to stay in Japan indefinitely from just two industries ( construction and shipbuilding ) to 11. This now includes the difficult-to-define” service sector,” which is probably why it’s more uncommon to see a Japanese assistant in a convenience store than a foreign-born one. The population of Vietnamese is thought to have increased to nearly half a million via this route.

There has also been a focus on highly skilled workers and those in the top income brackets, such as researchers and engineers, and potential entrepreneurs. Foreigners who met a certain set of requirements starting in April 2023 were eligible for permanent residency after one year, up from the previous three. Japanese universities have begun offering special programs designed to acquaint graduates of the top 100 universities (‘the future creative talent ‘), who would then receive special residency status. A ‘ start up ‘ visa for would be tycoons is also available.

Gearoid Reidy ( who is very good at busting myths about Japan ) has &nbsp, another great article about this.

The reason the government is doing this is in order to compensate ( partially ) for Japan’s rapidly aging society. Japan needs workers to support its industries, and taxpayers to support its pensions.

However, if the general populace of Japan were opposed to this increase in immigration, they would stop it in the same way they did attempts to amend the nation’s constitution. The Japanese government generally responds to the opinions of the general public. And public opinion in Japan is pretty pro- immigration.

Japanese attitudes toward immigration

Numerous surveys ask Japanese people what they think about immigration. The Pew survey, which addresses people in numerous industrialized nations in the same way, is my favorite. Here’s some data from&nbsp, the 2019 survey:

According to this poll, Japan is not the most pro- immigrant country in the world, but it’s near the top. In fact, the Pew survey asks many different questions, regarding crime, terrorism, mass deportation of illegal immigrants, and so on. In&nbsp, every single one&nbsp, of Pew’s questions, Japan is more pro- immigrant than the median country surveyed.

Pew’s is not the only poll, of course. &nbsp, Gallup surveyed a much wider array of countries&nbsp, than Pew did, and found that Japan was still well above median — about the same as France, and ahead of Brazil — in terms of openness to immigration.

Do Japanese people want people to immigrate from their own neighborhoods? Yes. &nbsp, Kyodo News found&nbsp, that most Japanese prefectures want to add immigrants, in order to keep their communities from disappearing. And here’s a poll by NHK:

Source: NHK via&nbsp, Gearoid Reidy

The origin of the pro-immigration sentiment is not a mystery either. It’s just economics. Here ‘s&nbsp, the result of a Nikkei survey:

Nearly 70 % of Japanese think it is “good” to see an increase in the number of foreign people, both at work and in the community, a recent Nikkei survey found…People who favored the increase cited “important as workers” as the reason for their decision.

The populace’s perception of the changes was questioned by the Nikkei survey, which revealed that 50 % of Japanese people did n’t like the country’s inability to welcome in large numbers of foreign workers. But whatever unease Japanese people feel about the rapid diversification of their country, it&nbsp, has n’t yet caused a political backlash&nbsp, or any kind of visible intercommunal strife. Most of Europe and America ca n’t say the same.

But when they’re asked about specific concerns about immigrants, Japanese people are generally not very worried. For instance, according to Pew, Japanese people are incredibly confident that immigrants will reintegrate into their way of life:

How can we be sure that Japanese respondents do n’t respond to these surveys with only political correctness? &nbsp, Igarashi and Kagayoshi ( 2022 ) &nbsp, have actually done some research on this. They find that Japanese people actually think that being&nbsp, anti- immigrant&nbsp, is more politically correct, and are giving pro- immigrant responses&nbsp, in spite&nbsp, of what they think they ought to be saying:

We used online surveys to compare the responses to those in list experiments and direct questions about immigrants ‘ attitudes to find out what Japanese citizens think of norms. The results indicate that Japanese people try to express more negative attitudes toward people on direct questions than they do in list experiments, which suggests that it is more common to express prejudice against immigrants than to suppress it.

This is a very interesting experiment, because it suggests that many Japanese people also buy into the idea that their country is closed to immigration, and are expressing their own pro- immigration opinions&nbsp, in spite of&nbsp, that stereotype. That in turn points to a changing mindset in the last few decades.

In fact, I should add that the average Japanese person is less worried about immigration to Japan than&nbsp, I&nbsp, am. I‘m personally concerned that immigration will make Japan more criminal because: A) Japan is such a low-crime nation to begin with, and even immigrants who are very law-abiding by international standards will likely be more likely to break the law; and B) Japanese corporations ‘ stringent hiring practices may routinely obstruct some immigrants from earning opportunities, causing anger among second-generation youth.

However, Japanese people actually hold a minority opinion about crime:

In other words, every piece of systematic data we have shows that Japan’s opening to immigration is being driven not by elite machinations, but by broad- based public opinion.

Anecdotes and impressions

Although Japan’s xenophobia is largely a thing of the past, the stereotype of it as a closed-off, stubbornly homogeneous nation seems to have a deep connection to Western culture.

When there’s a persistent stereotype like that, people tend to A) come up with creative interpretations of evidence in order to protect that stereotype, and B) seize on anecdotes, real or false, that seem to confirm the stereotype.

Many people on social media point out that there are a number of restaurants and other places in Japan that refuse to serve foreigners as an example of the latter. A lot of people are asking about it if you do a Google search for this.

In fact, there are a very, &nbsp, very&nbsp, few restaurants in Japan that do refuse to serve foreigners. Once in a very great while, someone&nbsp, finds one of these and puts a picture of it on Twitter or Reddit, and it makes its way around the internet and reinforces everyone’s stereotypes. But the truth is that this sort of thing is&nbsp, incredibly&nbsp, rare. I’ve never encountered it. Nobody I know in Japan has ever encountered it.

Like certain other&nbsp, notorious urban myths&nbsp, about Japan, restaurants that refuse to serve foreigners are almost entirely apocryphal. The myth is perpetuated by A) lying on the internet, B) gullible Westerners ‘ willingness to accept a myth that fits their stereotypes, and C ) tourists who encounter restaurant hosts who ca n’t speak English, assuming they were turned down because they were denied because they were from other countries.

When Americans return from a trip to Tokyo and tell me how uniform it was, another illustration of confirmation bias. They tend to assume that all the East Asian people they see riding the train or&nbsp, working in convenience stores&nbsp, are Japanese, rather than Vietnamese or Chinese or Filipino immigrants ( which&nbsp, a substantial portion are ).

And when they see White or Black or South Asian people, they tend to assume they’re tourists instead of residents. Although the large number of Indian workers at the Narita airport may be changing that perception, it can be easy to overlook the diversity of the environment if you first assume it does n’t exist.

After living in Japan for about four years, I have come to the conclusion that Japanese society is essentially as welcoming to immigrants as the US is.

In some ways, it ‘s&nbsp, more&nbsp, accepting. On occasion, I’ve witnessed Western expats treating Japanese service members like dirt without any repercussions, a occurrence known as the “gaijin smash,” or “gaijin smash.” The same forbearance would &nbsp, not&nbsp, be shown in most of the places I’ve lived in America.

Yes, some Westerners who reside in Japan will tell you they never truly felt welcome or accepted. To be honest, I believe that this is typically caused by A) not learning Japanese and B) being the type of person who does n’t feel accepted in their home country either. If I were you, I would n’t accept these tales as proof of Japanese xenophobia.

And yes, occasionally you will hear an elderly, right- wing&nbsp, Japanese politician declare&nbsp, that Japan is a racially homogeneous nation. You should approach this the same way you would approach someone who declared that America is a Christian nation or someone who claimed that immigrants ‘ children will never truly become Americans.

I am aware that many people wo n’t be persuaded by this article. The desire to explain the world through cultural essentialism is strong and deep-rooted, and stereotypes are beloved, cherished objects.

A certain percentage of the populace will always assume that Japanese people are still a bunch of samurai from the 18th century as they contemplate the cherry blossoms as they polish their swords. Old canards survive because they’re comforting and are quick shortcuts to understanding a complex and rapidly changing world.

So you know what? If after seeing all of the evidence, you’re still firm in your conviction that Japan is a closed- off, xenophobic society, &nbsp, do n’t move there. As a result, you and Japan will both benefit.

But if you’re the president of the United States, or another important figure in the US government, please refrain from calling Japan xenophobic. If you’re going to be wrong about this, at least be wrong silently.

Update: As if to underscore my point, Japan just&nbsp, doubled its annual cap&nbsp, on visas for skilled foreign workers, from 80, 000 to 160, 000. As a percent of Japan’s population, this is larger than the US caps on employment- based green cards and H- 1b visas&nbsp, combined.

This&nbsp, article&nbsp, was first published on Noah Smith’s Noahpinion&nbsp, Substack and is republished with kind permission. Read the&nbsp, original&nbsp, and become a Noahopinion&nbsp, subscriber&nbsp, here.