Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to cozy up to Donald Trump by making a hastily planned trip to Trump Tower merely nine days after election day last November. There, in Midtown Manhattan, he presented the then president-elect with a handcrafted, gold-plated golf driver reportedly worth as much as $3,755.
Since the pair’s initial tête-à-tête in November, Japan’s third longest-serving prime minister has quietly cultivated personal ties with the former New York real estate developer. So much so that Abe “has never seemed to waver in his support for President Trump, seeking out meetings and regularly speaking by telephone,” Motoko Rich, the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief, recently observed. Abe, according to Rich, “is one of a few world leaders who rarely criticize or even comment on Mr Trump’s political turmoil at home.” The two leaders’ uniquely chummy relationship, the Times journalist concluded, “reflect the alignment of two conservative and nationalistic administrations.”
Abe, 63, himself a staunch nationalist, has been pursuing a protectionist stance vis-à-vis immigration – a stance not unlike Trump’s own strident “America First” doctrine. Just over a year ago, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Abe was pressed as to whether his country should relax its stringent immigration policies by accepting refugees from war-torn Syria. The Japanese leader infamously responded to reporters that his country first needs to take steps to resolve its own domestic concerns relating to “demography” before Tokyo can entertain the possibility of welcoming newcomers – namely, addressing issues pertaining to Japan’s rapidly graying populace and shrinking birthrate, as well as mobilizing more women into the workforce to improve its chronically sluggish economy.
The prime minister’s insinuation that immigration is not an option to redress Japan’s declining population and labor shortages – the measure typically adopted by developed economies in similar predicaments – raised eyebrows in the international community and among global economists alike. His was an approach to immigration that might be termed “Japan-first.” Abe’s message at the United Nations was quite clear: He would prefer safeguarding the cohesion of Japan’s ethnically homogenous demography – even at the risk of further stymying its economy, which is at last showing some signs of growth – than allowing an influx of migrants to settle in his country en masse.
In stark contrast to leaders of progressive liberal democracies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Abe conspicuously refrained from commenting on Trump’s controversial travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations, stating curtly that his government is “not in a position” to weigh in on internal U.S. policies. (Merkel, on the other hand, didn’t mince her words, remarking back in February that “Fighting international terrorism is not something that will justify throwing a general suspicion on people of a certain faith or a certain origin.”)
And it’s little wonder why. Despite being chastised by Human Rights Watch for its “abysmal record” in failing to take in its fair share of refugees to mitigate the global migration crisis, Japan, the world’s third largest economy, admitted just 28 asylum seekers out of over 10,000 applicants in 2016 – an incremental improvement from 27 in 2015 despite a steep 44% jump in asylum claims received last year. For the record, that is a staggering rejection rate of more than 99 %. By contrast, the European-wide asylum granting rate, according to the British Red Cross, averages 63 to 65%. As for the U.S., under Barack Obama, the annual presidential determination for refugee intake for fiscal year 2017 numbered as high as 110,000. Amnesty International also voiced concern, labeling Japan’s limited admittance of asylum claimants “dehumanizing.”
Such miniscule numbers, suggestive of a lack of due process, beg the question: Did Japan’s immigration authorities, in the face of the mounting criticisms from human rights groups, allow one more refugee from the previous year so that they can concoct a claim of making “improvements”, at least on paper? If that is the case, it’s a flagrant disregard of refugee rights that makes a mockery of the 1951 Geneva Convention under which Tokyo has obligations to provide a safe haven to those who “seek asylum from persecution in other countries”. (In a subsequent finding made public in July, an independent panel overseeing the Justice Ministry’s refugee vetting process, in fact, detected irregularities in at least 32 cases where asylum applications were denied out of hand “without their backgrounds having been thoroughly investigated.”)
And there is no sign to indicate that the Abe administration is bucking the trend in curbing its hard-line immigration posture any time soon. “Whether [asylum] seekers are applicable for refugee [status] is judged based on the international treaty on refugees”, Yoko Kamikawa told the media shortly after assuming the post of justice minister in August’s cabinet reshuffle, whose portfolio includes overseeing the Immigration Bureau. “Therefore, acceptance of refugees does not increase or decrease based on [our] policy.”
True to Kamikawa’s words, the Justice Ministry disclosed earlier this month that it had admitted only three refugees in the first half of this year, in spite of receiving asylum claims in excess of 8,500 during that same period.
In the U.S., the crackdown on undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents – including those with no criminal record – has expedited alarmingly under Trump’s watch, while Japan’s Immigration Bureau, for its part, has not fared any better. In recent times, gross negligence at the hands of immigration officials has been exposed, thanks in large part to scrutiny from investigative reporters. In May, between 20 to 40 migrants held at a Tokyo immigration detention center went on a two-week hunger strike, followed by a further 20 detainees interned at a Nagoya facility, demanding “early provisional release, better treatment and the improvement of medical services”, Kyodo News reported.
In the past 11 years, as many as 13 foreign nationals have died while in the bureau’s custody, apparently without proper accountability and more often than not under murky circumstances. In the latest known case that transpired in March, a Vietnamese refugee in his 40s died of a stroke resulting from insufficient medical care. According to Reuters, the death of Van Huan Nguyen could have been prevented if adequate steps had been taken in response to his repeated complaints of pain for a period of a week. Reuters later uncovered that his pleas were largely ignored by guards who allegedly told Nguyen “to be quiet”.
Japan's meager refugee quota
All in all, an annual refugee quota of 27 or 28 is a shamefully meager number, compared with exemplary immigration policies advanced by standard-bearers such as Canada and Germany. Justin Trudeau, Canadian prime minister, made it a national project to take in tens of thousands of Syrians under the auspicious banners of multiculturalism and diversity affectionally known as “sunny ways”, while the German government, under Merkel’s chancellorship, altruistically opened its borders to more than one million refugees since early 2015 from the Middle East and Africa, in addition to disbursing 14.5 billion euros in support of resettlement programs in 2016 alone.
In light of Japan’s “shrinking demographic” which Abe identified in a Sept 25 press conference as one of two “national crises” that plagues his nation – along with the threat of “escalating tensions” posed by North Korea – aren’t these policies inspiring models that Tokyo should seek to emulate as a matter of course?
Taro Kono, a U.S.-educated lawmaker recently appointed foreign minister, is a rare moderating voice within Abe’s cabinet who seems to concur. The Japan Times appraised Kono as a surprise pick for the top diplomatic post, given his pro-immigration views, citing his February statement in which Kono appealed for an initiative to let in more “workers from overseas”, which he deemed “the only option” for Japan’s survival going forward.
It remains to be seen how much influence Kono is able to wield with respect to reforming a polarizing domestic matter such as immigration – particularly now that Abe has called a snap election, due to be held later this month with the aim of consolidating his grip on power.
Another hurdle to achieving a comprehensive immigration reform lies with no small matter of Japan’s ethnic monism. The Japanese psyche remains firmly entrenched in an insular and parochial mind-set even at this advanced juncture of globalization. Foreign residents, for instance, still account for a tiny fraction of the island nation’s population – roughly 2%, with the vast majority hailing from neighboring countries with similar cultural traits like China and Korea.
As a prosperous and stable nation-state that proudly enshrines pacifism in its Constitution, one would assume that Japan is well-equipped to integrate, at minimum, a moderate number of refugees well beyond the self-imposed current threshold of a mere couple of dozens yearly; especially for this much vaunted country that prides itself on its semi-official national virtue known as omotenashi – which means, ironically, “hospitality."
Kohei Usuda is a Tokyo-based freelance writer. He has written widely on Japanese culture and art for publications including Artforum.© Japan Today