One of the most hardhearted things the Trump administration has done (it’s difficult to choose) has been to slash the number of refugees (fleeing war, persecution etc.) that the US is willing to accept from other countries. In 2016, the Obama administration admitted eighty-five thousand refugees, nearing the level of George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s when we took in over a hundred thousand a year. President Trump now intends to cut the number nearly in half, to forty-five thousand.
Europe took in over 1.3 million refugees in 2015, in part because it is located closer to areas racked by Islamic-inspired violence. Not all are being granted asylum, but hundreds of thousands have been. The number of refugees arriving in Europe has dropped since 2015, but is still staggeringly large, enough to cause a profoundly unsettling effect on European politics.
Then there’s Japan. Details have just been released on how many refugees Japan has approved for asylum so far in 2017. The number: three. Not three thousand, not three hundred. Three.
That’s down sharply (on a percentage basis) from 2016, when the total approved was twenty-eight (out of nearly eleven thousand applicants). Which was actually an improvement; the year before, it was only twenty-seven. The total number approved since the end of 2011 has been less than a hundred. It’s little wonder that Human Rights Watch calls Japan’s record on refugees “abysmal.”
Why so few? Many Japanese say it’s because of the value their society places on “ethnic homogeneity.” They’ve been successful as a country, economically and otherwise, because they’re nearly all Japanese. Therefore, they don’t have to deal with the kinds of conflicts and tensions that arise when people of diverse appearances and backgrounds are forced to rub elbows. Less than a quarter of Japanese on a recent Pew survey believed that greater ethnic diversity would make their country a better place to live, with nearly 60 percent saying just the opposite.
This is exactly the argument made by white segregationists in the South for nearly a hundred years. Whites and blacks can each get along much more easily, they claimed, if they stick to their own schools, their own water fountains, and their own seating areas on the bus. There’s so much less tension that way.
Evidence of racism pops up all over Japan. Just a week ago, a popular cosmetics store put up a sign saying “Entry by Chinese people prohibited.” The sign came down when a furor erupted – but the underlying attitudes didn’t change. Foreigners in Japan (not just refugees) report widespread problems with insulting comments, housing and employment discrimination, etc., in a country that has no legal counterpart to our civil rights laws.
Attitudes like this don’t arise by themselves. More than a thousand hate speech rallies were held in Japan between 2012 and 2015, and according to the justice ministry, many of them associated with right-wing thugs who race around the streets screaming abuse on loudspeakers.
When criticized for its refugee record, the Japanese government is quick to argue that it aids the world’s downtrodden in other ways. They’re proud of the fact that they make the fourth highest financial contribution of any country to UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
An impressive statistic, until you notice that the Japanese economy, measured by gross domestic product, is actually the third largest in the world. When the third richest economy makes the fourth largest contribution, I’m missing what there is to be so self-righteous about. Total Japanese contributions to the UNHCR have declined every year since 2013.
Japan is actually taking some decisive steps in its refugee policy. Until now, the thousands who were waiting to see if they would win one of the couple of dozen golden tickets for asylum status were given temporary work permits, to help them earn enough so they didn’t starve to death. It seems this program is too contrary to the goal of ethnic purity, though, so they’re dumping it. Instead, refugee applicants will be herded into “detention centers,” which sound an awful lot like “concentration camps.”
One of the items sparking the change to detention centers may have been the case of two Bangladeshi asylum applicants who were employed to clean up radioactive contamination at the crippled Fukushima power plant – a job that is certainly not suitable for a true Japanese! The men were told that this life-threatening assignment would enhance their chances for permanent resident status. A promise, it turned out, that was a lie. Other non-Japanese ingrates complain to the press that their bosses “treat us like slaves.” Preventing asylum applicants from working to support themselves will help to avoid the kind of embarrassment Japan endured when word of this incident leaked out.
Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, his political ear to the ground, stated last month that he has “no intention” of changing his country’s rigid immigration policies. In 2015, one of his former advisors published an article recommending South African apartheid as a model for dealing with the few non-Japanese who live on the islands.
Traditionally, labor unions in many countries have resisted immigration on the grounds that it creates competition in the job market. Yet economists tell us that Japan, with an unemployment rate of only about three percent, would almost certainly benefit economically from more immigration. Its population mix is aging so rapidly – over a quarter of Japanese are now over the age of sixty-five – that work beneficial to everyone is going undone. Yet, Japan would rather turn to robots than to subhuman immigrants to meet its needs. I can tolerate a little greed, but these people are simply being hateful to prop up their own twisted view of racial superiority.
The eyes of the world will be on Japan during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. There need to be some hard questions asked, and some heavy-duty shaming. Shaming can work. It worked in the American south, and it worked in South Africa. No place is perfect, but these places are a heck of a lot better now than they used to be, because so many ordinary folks there grew tired of the rest of the world condemning them for being jerks. Japan is being a world-class jerk on refugees, and it’s time for the rest of us to let them hear about it.