As Third World migration increasingly dominates the headlines in the European Union and the United States, the rich nations of East Asia have been keeping heads their down. With good reason. True to their ultra-strict immigration policies, they have been admitting virtually no refugees.
South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China are at one in shunning almost all asylum seekers, no matter how deserving they may be. But even by East Asian standards, Japan is remarkably stone-hearted. It accepted a mere six asylum seekers in 2013 and eleven in 2014. Its admission rate seems particularly remarkable when compared with Australia’s. Australia after all is remote from the sources of the refugee problem. By contrast many troubled nations – Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma, for instance – are relatively speaking in Japan’s backyard. Yet Australia last year granted visas to 6,501 refugees.
For those who are keeping score, the remarkable thing is how successfully Japan has escaped international censure. Not to put too fine a point on it, Japan is the Teflon nation of global diplomacy. Nothing seems to stick. No matter how disappointingly it falls short of international expectations, it is rarely held to account.
The pattern was set long ago in trade policy. Already by the early 1970s, Japan had become notorious for constantly promising market opening measures that never materialized. Yet this did nothing to discourage American and European officials from negotiating further trade treaties that were in their time declared to represent a definitive end to Japanese mercantilism.
In Japanese refugee policy as in trade, a key factor is a little-noticed genius for public relations. But this is for the most part not normal public relations. Rather, the Japanese establishment pursues the sort of negative strategy that Howard Hughes adopted when he spent millions keeping his name out of the papers. On the one hand Japan ensures that its true policies remain as little publicized as possible; on the other it promotes various forms of tokenism to spike the guns of potential critics.
It helps that most Tokyo-based foreign correspondents are in the establishment’s pocket. This applies in particular to those who have lived long term in Japan. Meanwhile for the most part more recent arrivals are so pole-axed by culture shock that they have to be babysat at all times by their research assistants (almost all of whom can be assumed to be on message in serving Japan’s national agenda).
Meanwhile key Westerners are often invited on all-expenses-paid junkets to Japan. They are charmed to find themselves surrounded by real or putative Japanese intellectual allies hanging on their every word. Naturally nothing of the earnest deliberations that ensue ever makes it into the international press. The visitors leave feeling they have accomplished something. Rarely do they sense the reality that they have merely been assigned bit parts in a cast-of-thousands Gilbertian farce.
One person who has had more than his share of such treatment is Antonio Guterres, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since he took office in 2005 he has been hosted in Japan no less than twelve times. Repeatedly on such occasions he has frankly criticized Japan’s refugee policies yet, given that his comments have rarely been picked up by the major Anglophone media, this has been a case of flowers blushing unseen, wasting their sweetness on the desert air.
In a classic exercise in tokenism, Guterres in 2013 was led around a major Japanese photographic exhibition on the refugee crisis. The photos told a distressing story but went largely unnoticed in the press; and only a tiny minority of the Japanese population ever visited the exhibition.
In the 1990s, Japan found an even better way to parry criticism – by installing one of its own as head of the United Nations Refugee Agency. As a woman, Sadako Ogata won kneejerk support from Western feminists. What few Westerners noticed was that she was a card-carrying member of Japan’s inner establishment. The daughter of a career diplomat and the granddaughter of a fascist-era Foreign Minister, she married a top Bank of Japan official who was himself the son of a fascist-era leader. To say the least, there is little evidence that Ogata ever made waves – either in private, still less in public – for Japan’s refugee policy.
Japanese policymakers rarely explain themselves and almost never frankly, but part of their hostility to refugees is believed to derive from concern about overpopulation. In reality, however, Japan’s population density does not make it even into the world’s top thirty. Significant nations that are more densely populated include Belgium, Holland, Puerto Rico, and Lebanon. Meanwhile even the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Germany are not far behind.
Another factor is believed to be a concern to avoid diluting Japan’s societal homogeneity. Again Japanese leaders rarely if ever comment frankly but it can be assumed that in common with their counterparts elsewhere in East Asia they hold that a nation works best when it is least fractured by religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of this story is Japan’s parsimony in funding United Nations relief efforts. Unlike nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, Japan continues to run large current account surpluses (the current account is the widest and most meaningful measure of a nation’s trade). Thus despite constant talk in recent decades that its finances have weakened, Japan is in fact in a far stronger position to support the United Nations than either the United States or the United Kingdom (both of which have consistently been running huge current account deficits). Yet on the last available figures, both the U.S and U.K. governments contributed more on a per-capita basis to the United Nations Refugee Agency than Japan. In fact Japan was outranked by no less than fifteen nations. Luxembourg’s contribution rate was nearly eleven times Japan’s, Norway’s nearly eight times, and Sweden’s nearly six times.
The full extent of Japan’s parsimony is understood only when the figures are broken down between so-called tied and untied aid. In the case of tied aid, the recipient is typically required to spend the money on goods produced by the donor nation. Less than one-tenth of Japan’s contribution was untied – one of the lowest rates of any significant nation. Perhaps the most striking thing of all is that Japan’s contributions have been falling in absolute terms. Totaling $226 million in 2011, they had been cut to $181 million in 2014.