Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Japan won’t forgive Joe Biden for his xenophobia gaffe

Joe Biden accused the Japanese of being ‘xenophobic’ (Getty images)

Joe Biden just threw a particularly nasty insult the way of Japan, a close ally of the United States, at a campaign event. The president accused the Japanese, along with China, Russia, and India, of being ‘xenophobic’ in their reluctance to admit large numbers of immigrants, and of damaging their economies as a consequence: ‘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. Immigrants are what make us strong,’ he told a Washington fundraiser on Wednesday.

The insult is being especially keenly felt over here in Tokyo

The insult is being especially keenly felt over here in Tokyo; it comes less than a month after a lavish and carefully choreographed love in between Biden and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida. There was a marching band, a formal state dinner, and an atmosphere of mutual admiration all designed to present the two leaders as not just staunch allies but bosom buddies.

Nobody over here much bought into that representation – the mini-summit was seen as being mainly for domestic consumption from two under-pressure leaders – but the swiftness of the change of tone is still surprising in its sheer, brazen rudeness. And gall (Biden has condemned his rival Donald Trump for anti-immigrant rhetoric on numerous occasions). It’s as if a colleague whom you always imagined you had reasonable relations with suddenly tells you they hate your guts.

But does Biden have any kind of point? Well, he is right that the Japanese economy is struggling. The IMF has forecast US growth at 2.7 per cent compared to 0.9 per cent for Japan. But to blame this on xenophobia is way off. For a start, Biden is factually wrong: Japan has opened its doors to immigrants – legal immigrants that is – in recent years, not in the chaotic manner of the US but through careful but substantial changes to its admissions policies. These should see an additional 800,000 skilled workers entering the country over the next five years.

The changes are most noticeable in Tokyo where, along with a significant increase in foreign workers, a tourist boom fuelled by the weak yen has made the sight of bewildered foreigners wandering around Shinjuku station a daily occurrence. Some locals are irritated at the overcrowding at popular tourist spots, but the increased foreign presence of both workers and tourists has generally been welcomed. A survey by the Asahi newspaper published last month found that 62 per cent of the population said more foreign workers should be admitted.

In any case, Japan is not America, a nation of immigrants. Japan has, as any Japanese will tell you within about five minutes of starting a conversation, a unique culture. And it is a culture in which etiquette plays an essential role in maintaining societal harmony. The rules are endless, mostly unspoken, and learned often through trial and grievous error.

It takes a long time: to quote Dikko Henderson the resident British agent in Tokyo in Ian Flemming’s You Only Live Twice, ‘I’ve been in Japan twenty years and I’m only just starting to find my way around’. He wasn’t just talking about directions. It’s still like that today. But have I ever felt unwelcome or discriminated against in my 25 years here? A handful of times perhaps in the very early days, but those experiences are outnumbered a hundred-fold by kindnesses received despite my blundering and insensitive gaijin ways. I’ve always done my best to respect the local culture but I have certainly erred and the usual response has been generous and forgiving. And whatever problems there were in the past, there has been a noticeable improvement in the treatment of foreigners in the last decade or so. Overall, I have no complaints.

This won’t be forgotten any time soon

So what is Biden up to? He is, of course, on campaign, and using every tactic at his disposal to sway voters by playing on their emotions. Combining his supposed economic success with a justification for mass immigration, while at the same time appealing to any latent Sino and Nipponophobic tendencies of his audience is, arguably, an effective, if cynical strategy.

The other possibility is that he just went off script, and his inner grouchy grandpa persona leaked out. His summit with Kishida was all of three weeks’ ago, so it is understandable if he has forgotten about it. And perhaps he has been binge-watching the remake of Shogun on those long spells at his Delaware retreat and imagines it still to be the Edo period.

Whatever the explanation, two things are certain. Firstly, this won’t be forgotten any time soon – the Japanese have only just about forgiven the Democrats for Bill Clinton skipping the country on an Asian tour in 1998 (the ‘Japanese passing’ incident). And Donald Trump just made a load of new friends in Japan.