Why isn't Japan criticized for its refugee policies as much as other developed countries are?


Japan is unique among the world's most developed countries for its extremely harsh policies towards refugees. The policy is fully acknowledged by the Japanese leaders who have been quoted saying:

I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, elderly people and we must raise our birth rate. There are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.

However, we don't seem to hear much criticism towards Japan from NGOs, newspapers and politicians. Likewise the issue doesn't seem to be a contested one within Japan, as their leaders publicly reject the very concept of asylum.

What is the reason behind this? Is Japan simply on the periphery of interests of the Western world?


Posted 2017-08-17T23:02:18.927

Reputation: 36 466

4Is this really true? It may simply be a function of which news outlets one frequents. Many U.S. media outlets don't report much on Japan period. – ohwilleke – 2017-08-18T01:02:57.773

2The first link is paywalled. Can you provide evidence for your claims that 1) Japan has a harsh policy towards refugees 2) Japan is the only strongly developed country that has a harsh policy towards refugees (what about South Korea, the USA, or Australia?) 3) That Japan isn't heavily criticised for its policies? – Andrew Grimm – 2017-08-18T02:39:49.663

1@AndresGrimm 1) First link fixed. 2) South Korea accepts plenty of North Koreans, the US willingly issues tens of thousands of refugee visas, Australia is under heavy criticizm 3) This one is hard to quantify, however their claims are certainly a lot harder than those of any other developed countries, since they openly reject needing immigrants or refugees – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T07:08:28.820

1Maybe the fact that so many citizens sleep like stacked cord wood and they have people whose job it is to physically cram people into public transit train cars has people feeling a bit more sympathetic about not taking in more humans onto that relatively small island. – PoloHoleSet – 2017-08-18T14:02:35.437

2@PoloHoleSet Germany is pretty dense as well in regions where refugees are actually resettled. I've never heard anyone saying "Berlin is too dense, let's forbid any refugees from moving there". – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T14:10:43.340

@JonathanReez - Japan's population density is 3.8 times that of Germany. – PoloHoleSet – 2017-08-18T14:19:12.077

@PoloHoleSet yes, on average. But you won't be settling refugees on mountains, forests and fields. You'll be settling them in cities and there are plenty of cities in Japan with comparable density. – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T14:25:47.550

@JonathanReez - yes, and there are mountainous areas in Japan, as well,. that won't accommodate incoming populations. Not sure what the point is for that statement. At least in Germany, as you point out, there are vast areas that can be expanded to. Tokyo's population density is over 1.5 times that of Berlin, which you judge to be "pretty dense." That's pretty huge. So, again, apples and oranges. I'm also not saying I agree with the policy, just that the well-documented lack of elbow room might lead people to be more forgiving. – PoloHoleSet – 2017-08-18T14:28:50.900

1@PoloHoleSet well, Belgium is comparably dense to Japan and Israel even more so. But Israel is constantly being criticized for failing to accommodate African refugees and I'm sure that the Belgian government would go into crisis if their PM announced they don't want any refugees. – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T14:36:28.003



According to this New York Times article, one reason is that the Japanese value ethnic homogenity. 98.5% of the country's population is ethnically Japanese. This may be contrasted with countries like the United States, which are significantly more ethnically diverse. Other relatively developed countries, like Israel, Hungary, and Poland offer similar nationalist justifications for their decision to not take in a significant number of refugees. Commentators have also noted that Japan has had no issues with Islamic terrorism, unlike countries who have a more welcoming attitude towards immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim countries.

As for your question regarding criticism from NGOs and newspapers, that's slightly unclear. Anecdotally, as a consumer of mainstream media outlets, I've noticed that American media outlets naturally focus first on the American politics, then on European politics (given the broad cultural similarity between Europe and US) and then on politics elsewhere in the world. This would explain why the issue of Japan and refugees tends not to be raised very often.

If you mean to ask why the issue isn't raised in Japanese media and, more broadly, Japanese society, then that's a better question. Again, it likely has to do with the prevailing political and cultural norm that ethnic homogenity is desirable. That said, the issue is nevertheless often discussed in Japan as well.

One must also keep in mind that following the events of the Second World War, ethnic nationalism is something that much of Western Europe, and particularly Germany, has broadly repudiated in some sense. Until very recently, nationalist parties were considered entirely outside of the mainstream of European politics, and, to my knowledge, no nationalist party has had power in a Western European country for quite a long time. Wikipedia, for example, describes German nationalism as being "taboo" in Germany (a scholarly source is given for this claim). Even in the United States, given its history of racism and slavery, ethnic nationalism isn't something within the mainstream of political discourse; this is why events like the Charlottesville rally are repudiated across the political spectrum. This may again be contrasted with countries like Japan, Israel and India, all of which, although having relatively Western political systems, have nationalist political parties in power, all of which would likely be considered "far-right" by European/American standards.


Posted 2017-08-17T23:02:18.927


5"This would explain why the issue of Japan and refugees tends not to be raised very often." - the issue of whaling is very commonly discussed when it comes to Japan. On the other hand Hungary is mostly talked about in the context of Orban's statements about the refugee crisis, otherwise most people couldn't even show it on the map. – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T14:38:41.880

2Well yes of course. Save the whales gets views. Japanese history? Not so much – None – 2017-08-21T17:54:31.777


I can't read the Financial Times article but the quote in your question is not very specific and lumps together all type of immigration. What little I know suggests Japan's policy is actually pretty standard. I even learned recently that it allows asylum seekers to work as soon as they arrive (i.e. before their application has been processed).

Importantly, Japan does grant asylum seekers a hearing and that's really all international law requires. Under the Geneva convention and other relevant laws and customs, you should not (and often practically cannot) send back refugees to their country of origin. Consequently, you cannot set quotas or quantitative limits in advance, use racist or otherwise arbitrary discriminatory criteria (no Arabs, no muslims, etc.), or select refugees based on how useful they are to your country's economy.

But the only thing you have to do is process applications on the merits. International law does provide a very broad definition of what a refugee is but it's essentially up to each country to decide whether someone fits the definition or not. Even in the EU, which has a body of secondary law and oversight mechanisms to regulate this, there are very large discrepancies in the rate of success for people coming from the same countries.

Looking at Japan, it did grant a status to some refugees, e.g. from Afghanistan, which is more than you can say of a country like Greece. The table in the other question is truncated but for all I know, it even seems possible that it does in fact recognise most Afghan refugees who manage to go to Japan. It just doesn't get that many.


Posted 2017-08-17T23:02:18.927

Reputation: 24 058

1Well, their PM is openly bashing the very concept of being forced to accept refugees or immigrants. If Trump or Merkel said the same in public they'd be crucified by the media for weeks. I'm wondering why Japan gets a "free pass" in this regard. – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T06:48:14.207

@JonathanReez That's a good point, maybe a bit of stereotyping (“We all know Japanese are racists and xenophobes, let's ignore it”)? But in practice they do seem to have a decent process in place (which is of course much easier when the number of people in question is so small) so I don't see any harsh policies. – Relaxed – 2017-08-18T09:07:01.720

On a related note, the fact that Merkel is still widely criticised (from the right) or praised (from the left) for “opening up” the borders based on one or two TV interviews has always been a mystery for me, for Germany hasn't changed much to its policies either and is in some ways more restrictive than Japan (e.g. still doing everything it can to offload refugees to third-countries, restrictions on movement for recognised refugees, no right to work and sometimes detention for asylum seekers – even occasionally in jail if no other facility is available, which is illegal) – Relaxed – 2017-08-18T09:09:44.703

1Their policies have another one big difference from Australia or the US - they issue no visas to refugees abroad. Australia accepted 12,000 refugees recently and the US has been resettling refugees for decades. Europe doesn't issue many such visas, but then again they have a lot of people coming through the sea and land borders. I'm also guessing it's quite hard to cross over the Sea of Japan from anywhere except South Korea, so most of their applicants are people who have been previously vetted on some level. – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T09:25:51.880

@JonathanReez Based on the stats and press articles mentioned in the other question, their applicants are likely to be overstayers or people who came on a completely different type of visa. But that's the point, if you don't have to deal with irregular entries or people applying at the border, you don't need “harsher” policies. Similarly, the Reuters article just say that the number of successful applicants is low but the number of plausible applicants is also very low. – Relaxed – 2017-08-18T09:49:30.060

1They don't participate in resettlement efforts but that's a relatively obscure issue and I have never seen much coverage or criticism related to that. It's letting people die at your doorstep in blatantly illegal ways that's being criticised. The contrast with Australia is interesting, we discussed that recently but I suspect participating in resettlement efforts was necessary to balance out their refusal to accept applications from people entering by boat, a problem Japan does not have. Here again, harsh-soft is kind of a false dichotomy, issues are very different depending on the context. – Relaxed – 2017-08-18T09:52:50.240

I do agree that it's mainly a question of the difference between what Japanese officials are saying vs. what other developed countries are saying. The V4 countries have basically the same position, but they're heavily criticized for it both internally and externally. – JonathanReez – 2017-08-18T10:04:08.677