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Is Japan 'xenophobic' like US President Biden claims?

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
May 6, 2024

US President Joe Biden's recent remarks about foreign labor have provoked pushback from Japan's government. Many Japanese residents echoed that sentiment, though their immigration track record may suggest otherwise.

Western tourists in a rickshaw in Japan
Japan's attitude toward foreign nationals living and working in the country has been criticizedImage: picture alliance/AP

The Japanese government has expressed "disappointment" with recent remarks made by US President Joe Biden, in which he described Japan as "xenophobic" when it came to immigration policy.

At a campaign fundraiser on the evening of May 1, Biden deemed Japan, along with India, China and Russia, as "xenophobic" as he tried to contrast the nations' economic circumstances to those in the US as a nation of immigrants.

Through diplomatic channels, Tokyo informed the White House that the president's remarks were not based on an "accurate understanding" of Japanese policies, Kyodo News quoted a government official as saying. Many Japanese and foreign residents have also expressed their disagreement with Biden's choice of words.

They cited Japan granting entry to more refugees than ever before last year, tourists consistently receiving a warm welcome and many foreign nationals integrating into Japanese society.

For others in the country, the comment prompted some soul-searching regarding Japan's policies toward asylum-seekers, low refugee numbers and potentially discriminatory checks on foreign nationals.

What did Joe Biden say?

The diplomatic storm was triggered when Biden spoke at an event at a hotel in Washington attended by Asian American voters. "One of the reasons why our economy is growing is because of you and many others," Biden reportedly said. "Why? Because we welcome immigrants."

He added, "Look, think about it. Why is China stalling so badly economically? Why is Japan having trouble? Why is Russia? Why is India? Because they are xenophobic. They don't want immigrants."

Foreigners living in Japan waves the Japanese flag during Japan s Emperor Akihito s 76th birthday at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Many Japanese remain opposed to large numbers of foreign nationals settling in the country permanentlyImage: ZUMA Press/IMAGO

White House officials later attempted to play down the issue, with spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters that the president had been highlighting the US tradition of welcoming immigrants.

"Our allies and partners know very well how much this president respects them," she added.

In addition to the choice of words, many in Japan were upset at Biden lumping the nation together with China and Russia, two nations that have been accused of human rights abuses and that have historically had tense diplomatic relations with Japan.

Xenophobia is 'too strong'

Malcolm Adams, an African American who has lived in Japan for 48 years, said he "respectfully disagrees with the president's characterization of Japan as xenophobic."

"It is true that Japan has historically had strict immigration policies, but it is important to acknowledge the significant strides that country has made in recent years to welcome and accommodate foreign workers," he told DW.

Adams, 74, said Japan has recognized that it faces a demographic crisis of an aging society where too few babies are being born and it is opening up — admittedly gradually — to outside workers to meet the labor shortage. He added that he felt he has been "embraced by Japanese society."

"This country is evolving, and its efforts to address demographic challenges should be commended rather than criticized."

Ken Kato, a businessman from Tokyo, also disagreed with the US president's remarks. "That accusation is completely untrue and unfair," he said. "I would say that Japan is one of the most welcoming nations in the world, which is completely the opposite of what Biden said."

Kato pointed out that modern Japan has historically welcomed foreign ideas, having opened up to the outside world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Japan's discriminatory policing

"To generalize that all of Japan is xenophobic or unwelcoming to foreign nationals is completely groundless," said Teppei Kasai, program officer at the Japan office of Human Rights Watch.

However, he admitted that "certain aspects" of society in Japan might be considered less accepting of foreigners.

There are reports that non-Japanese can find it difficult to rent properties as Japanese owners are reluctant to accept foreign tenants. There is also an ongoing legal case against the police over allegations of non-Japanese being stopped and questioned far more frequently than Japanese.

Japanese life as a Ukrainian refugee

The government and police authorities have strenuously denied they are actively picking out foreigners for questioning after a former inspector who was based in western Japan caused a storm by stating in an interview in April with the Mainichi newspaper that he was told to "target foreigners for questioning and check their foreign resident registration cards."

One month of the year was designated for "cracking down on foreigners," the unnamed former officer said, with police instructed to "put extra effort into checking cards, but also searching foreigners for drugs, knives or anything else illegal."

"It is important to distinguish the problematic policies of the Japanese government and what the general public thinks," said Kasai, pointing to a 2020 government survey which showed that 20% of respondents said they were open to accepting more refugees in a "proactive" manner. A further 57% said they were willing to accept greater numbers of refugees "carefully."

Changing attitudes toward immigration in Japan?

However, getting into Japan can prove challenging. The country granted a "record 303 asylum-seekers" refugee status out of 13,823 applicants in 2023, The Japan Times reported, citing figures from a recent Justice Ministry report. This was a jump from 202 people granted refugee status in 2022.

Japan also practices policies criticized by human rights groups, such as "indefinite" or prolonged detention for migrants requesting asylum and deportation.

The country remains opposed to large numbers of foreign nationals settling permanently. A poll conducted by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper in April indicated that 62% of people support the government policy of granting more visas for skilled workers, up significantly from just 44% in the previous poll conducted in 2018. However, some remain resistant to large-scale immigration.

Kato's own attitude seems indicative of Japan's general mood against "unrestricted immigration."

"We see on television that that policy has not gone well in other countries, and I am not convinced that Japan needs large numbers of foreign workers as within a decade or two, AI, robotics and other technologies will have advanced to such a degree that they will have solved the labor problems," the Tokyo businessman said.

"I don't see this as xenophobia; it's just a sensible policy."

Edited by: Kate Martyr

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Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea