No, Japan’s actually not a xenophobic country

The other day at a fundraiser, Joe Biden made a casual comment that I consider to be the worst gaffe of his entire term as president. He declared that two of America’s most important allies, India and Japan, are “xenophobic”, and placed them in the same category as Russia and China:

“You know, one of the reasons why our economy is growing is because of you and many others. Why? Because we welcome immigrants. We look to – the reason – look, think about it – why is China stalling so badly economically? Why is Japan having trouble? Why is Russia? Why is India? Because they’re xenophobic. They don’t want immigrants,” Biden said, according to an official White House transcript.

From a diplomatic standpoint, this was extremely stupid since it insults our allies while gaining absolutely nothing. It’s also a little hypocritical, given that Biden just vowed to block a Japanese steel company from acquiring US Steel on incredibly flimsy pretexts — not to mention all the restrictive measures Biden has taken towards immigration over the course of his presidency in order to appease the US public. Glass houses, etc.

The White House should have walked the comment back and apologized, but instead it defended the remark, saying it was part of a “broader point.” The fact that even a Democratic administration can so casually insult key allies should make us a little more pessimistic about the US’ ability to assemble a global coalition of democracies in the decades to come.

But beyond the diplomatic stupidity of the remark, it’s just not factually true. I don’t know enough about India to make a judgment, but I do know a fair amount about Japan, and the common trope that it’s a xenophobic country that doesn’t want immigrants is just provably false.

First, I think we should define our standards here. Every country has some element of xenophobia within its populace. And every country has some additional wariness of large-scale immigration that doesn’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 open-border policy — not Canada, not Sweden, not Singapore, and certainly not the United States.

So when I say “Japan is not a xenophobic country”, what I mean is that it’s not abnormally 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 observe the number of immigrants Japan actually takes in. Second, we can look at the policies it uses to select who gets to come. And third, we have data on Japanese attitudes toward immigration.

Immigrant flows and policies

It is true that until recently, Japan had relatively little immigration in the postwar period. That changed slowly starting in the 1990s, and then in 2013, when the late 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 result was a sea change that has rapidly altered the face of Japan.

First, let’s look at some numbers. Here is the official number of foreign residents in Japan:

By Yuasan – Own work, Data from 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 zainichi — 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 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 the number of foreigners in Japan is even more recent and dramatic than the chart indicates. In the 1980s, Japan deserved its reputation as a country that didn’t accept immigrants.

In the 90s there was an influx of people from China and Brazil (the latter being mostly 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 3.2 million foreign residents of Japan. That’s 2.6% of the country’s population. That might not sound like a lot, and it’s not a lot compared to countries in Europe or the Anglosphere. In fact, it’s lower than the world average of 3.5%. But the rate of change matters a lot — it’s 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 right now, the flow is what you should look at, not the stock. The Japan of 2024 is not the Japan of 1984. This often comes as a surprise to those Westerners who 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.

When we look at how Japan got all those immigrants, we see that it was a very deliberate result of government policy. Here is what I wrote for Bloomberg in 2019:

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

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

And this is from a recent article in the Spectator:

In June 2023 Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expanded a visa which allowed foreign laborers and their families to stay in Japan indefinitely from just two industries (construction and shipbuilding) to 11. Crucially this now includes the hard-to-define ‘service sector’, which is probably why it’s rarer to see a Japanese assistant in a convenience store now than a foreign born one. Largely via this pathway the number of Vietnamese is believed to have surged to nearly half a million.

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. From April 2023, foreign workers who fulfilled specific criteria became eligible for permanent residency after one year instead of the previous three. Japanese universities have started offering special programmes aimed at luring graduates (‘future creative talent’) from the world’s top 100 universities, who would then be granted 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 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.

But if the general Japanese populace was opposed to this increase in immigration, they would put a stop to it — just as they put a stop to attempts to revise the country’s constitution. The Japanese government is generally very responsive to public opinion. And public opinion in Japan is pretty pro-immigration.

Japanese attitudes toward immigration

There are numerous polls that ask Japanese people what they think about immigration. My favorite is the Pew survey, which asks the same questions to people in a bunch of developed countries. Here’s some data from 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 every single one of Pew’s questions, Japan is more pro-immigrant than the median country surveyed.

Pew’s is not the only poll, of course. Gallup surveyed a much wider array of countries 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 immigrants in the local areas where they themselves live? Yes. Kyodo News found 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 Gearoid Reidy

Nor is the reason for the pro-immigration sentiment a mystery. It’s just economics. Here’s 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 Nikkei survey did find some trepidation about the changes among the populace — 50% of Japanese people said they didn’t like that the country had to welcome in large numbers of foreign workers, but that it couldn’t be helped. But whatever unease Japanese people feel about the rapid diversification of their country, it hasn’t yet caused a political backlash or any kind of visible intercommunal strife. America and most European countries can’t say the same.

But when they’re asked about specific concerns about immigrants, Japanese people are generally not very worried. For example, Pew finds that Japanese people are extremely confident that immigrants will integrate to their way of life:

How do we know Japanese people aren’t just being politically correct when they answer these surveys? Igarashi and Kagayoshi (2022) have actually done some research on this. They find that Japanese people actually think that being anti-immigrant is more politically correct, and are giving pro-immigrant responses in spite of what they think they ought to be saying:

We conducted two list experiments using online surveys and compared the answers to those of list experiments and direct questions about attitudes towards immigrants to reveal Japanese citizens’ perceptions of norms. The results show that Japanese citizens attempt to show more negative attitudes upon direct questions than in list experiments, indicating that it is normative to express prejudice against immigrants rather than suppressing 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 in spite of that stereotype. That in turn suggests a country whose attitudes have shifted substantially in the last few decades.

In fact, I should add that the average Japanese person is less worried about immigration to Japan than I am. I am personally worried that immigration will increase crime in Japan, because A) Japan is such an incredibly low-crime country to begin with that even immigrants who are very law-abiding by international standards will probably be more likely to break the rules, and B) Japanese corporations’ rigid hiring system may systematically exclude some immigrants from economic opportunities, causing frustration among second-generation youth.

But my worry about crime is actually a minority viewpoint among Japanese people themselves:

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

Japan’s xenophobia may be largely a thing of the past, but the trope of Japan as a closed-off, stubbornly homogeneous nation seems to be deeply rooted in the Western psyche.

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.

As an example of the latter, a lot of people on social media claim that there are a bunch of restaurants and other establishments in Japan that refuse to serve foreigners. If you do a Google search for this, you will find a huge number of people asking about it.

In fact, there are a very, very few restaurants in Japan that do refuse to serve foreigners. Once in a very great while, someone 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 incredibly rare. I’ve never encountered it. No one I know in Japan has ever encountered it.

Like certain other notorious urban myths about Japan, restaurants that refuse to serve foreigners are almost entirely apocryphal. The myth is perpetuated by A) people lying on the internet, B) gullible Westerners’ willingness to believe in a myth that conforms to their stereotypes, and C) tourists encountering restaurant hosts who can’t speak English, and assuming they were turned away for being foreign.

Another example of confirmation bias is when Americans come back from a trip to Tokyo and tell me how homogeneous it was. They tend to assume that all the East Asian people they see riding the train or working in convenience stores are Japanese, rather than Vietnamese or Chinese or Filipino immigrants (which 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. The large number of Indian people working at Narita airport may be changing that perception, but in general, it can be easy to ignore the diversity around you if you start by assuming it doesn’t exist.

In fact, after living in Japan for about four years, my own impression is that Japanese society is roughly as welcoming to immigrants as the US is.

In some ways, it’s more accepting. On occasion I’ve seen Western expats treat Japanese service workers like dirt with zero repercussions — a phenomenon colloquially known as the “gaijin smash.” The same forbearance would not be shown in most of the places I’ve lived in America.

Yes, some Westerners living in Japan will tell you that they never quite felt accepted,or like they fit in. To be frank, I think this is usually some combination of A) failure to learn Japanese and B) being the type of person who wouldn’t feel accepted in their home country either. If I were you, I would not accept these tales as evidence of Japanese xenophobia.

And yes, occasionally you will hear an elderly, right-wing Japanese politician declare that Japan is a racially homogeneous nation. You should treat this exactly like you would treat someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Louie Gohmert declaring that America is a Christian nation, or someone like Stephen Miller claiming that the children of immigrants will never become truly American.

I know that there are a lot of people who are not going to be convinced by this post. Stereotypes are beloved, cherished things, and the impulse to explain the world through cultural essentialism is deep-rooted and strong.

There is a certain segment of the population who is always going to believe that Japanese people are still a bunch of 18th-century samurai, contemplating the cherry blossoms as they polish their swords. Old canards survive because they’re comforting — they’re easy shortcuts toward the feeling that we’ve somehow made sense of a complex and fast-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, don’t move there. Both you and Japan will be better off as a result.

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 doubled its annual cap 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 combined.

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

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