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?

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    Is 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
    Aug 18, 2017 at 1:02
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    The 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?
    – Golden Cuy
    Aug 18, 2017 at 2:39
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    @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 Aug 18, 2017 at 7:08
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    Maybe 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. Aug 18, 2017 at 14:02
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    @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". Aug 18, 2017 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


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.

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    "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. Aug 18, 2017 at 14:38
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    Well yes of course. Save the whales gets views. Japanese history? Not so much
    – user16214
    Aug 21, 2017 at 17:54

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.

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    Well, 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. Aug 18, 2017 at 6:48
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    @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
    Aug 18, 2017 at 9:07
  • 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
    Aug 18, 2017 at 9:09
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    Their 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. Aug 18, 2017 at 9:25
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    They 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
    Aug 18, 2017 at 9:52

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