Refugees in Japan

The following is the first of several (slightly modified) excerpts I’d like to share from my book Japan’s Open Future.

The Japanese government affirms that “refugee assistance is a bounden duty of a member of the international community,” and “one of the important pillars of Japan’s contribution to world peace and prosperity.” The country does send money to support refugees overseas—it gave $75 million in 2006 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the reality inside Japan is a far cry from its rhetoric and money sent abroad; any refugee who seeks a home in Japan is playing against terrible odds. Between 1981, when Japan ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and 2002, Japan accepted just over 300 people as refugees. Put differently, all the refugees Japan admitted over a twenty-year period under the convention could fit onto a single airplane. Consider the difference: whereas in 2001 Japan admitted 26 refugees out of about a million asylumseekers worldwide, in that same year the US admitted more than 20,000, Germany admitted more than 17,000 and Britain admitted more than 14,000. Even though the US and Europe have tightened their rules since 9/11, they still admit far more refugees than Japan. As TAKIZAWA Saburo, the UNHCR Representative in Japan, commented in a 2008 speech, “The ratio of asylum seekers coming to Japan is only 0.0013%”; when they look to Japan as a potential home, he said, they see “walls” and “structural barriers.”

Drilling down from the aggregate numbers, what is it like for an individual asylum-seeker in Japan? Saul Takahashi, former Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International in Japan, tells the story of meeting with Mohammed, a Nuba from Sudan, who had been tortured and whipped by the army. Takahashi tries to get Mohammed to understand what he is up against in hoping to become a refugee in Japan: “I tell him that it is practically impossible to get asylum in Japan … It will take years and during this time he will not get a work permit or any aid at all, [and] after they turn him down, he may be detained and deported.” In response, “Mohammed is silent for a minute. Then he says that he must try. He has no choice. He can’t go home. He has no place to go.”

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Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan

Here is a paper I contributed to the Carnegie Council’s journal Policy Innovations following a Sophia University conference on migration.

Japan’s population is on a downward slope, a trend which causes analysts no small amount of concern. As the Japanese government warned in a report a few years ago, “The speed with which the birth rate is falling is creating a situation that undermines the very foundations of society, the economy and the sustainability of local communities.” From its current population of more than 127 million, and extrapolating from current trends, the country may shrink to 100 or 90 million people by 2050.

Perhaps more important in economic terms is the narrowing of Japan’s demographic pyramid: Whereas 11 workers supported two retirees in 1960, the ratio was four workers to one retiree in 1999, and by 2050 the UN projects that only 1.7 workers will support one retiree. Those workers will face a heavy burden. A McKinsey study predicts that Japanese households will be no better off in 2024 than they were in 1997: “The continual improvement in living standards the Japanese have enjoyed during the last half-century will come to an end.”

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Do People Have a Right to Move Across National Borders?

This was the question explored at a recent interdisciplinary conference in Tokyo, jointly sponsored by Sophia University and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, where I was lucky enough to be a panelist. After the conference, James Farrer of Sophia University and Devin T. Stewart of the Carnegie Council prepared an excellent summary of what we discussed. Here it is – recommended reading for anyone interested in immigration or refugee issues.

The goal of declaring a “right to move” proved elusive at a two-day symposium onimmigration ethics at Sophia University in Tokyo, held in cooperation with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (Dec. 12–13, 2009). While many of the participants, and certainly both of us, started out with the hope of issuing a strong declaration on the rights of people to move across national borders, several obstacles emerged. Given that the conference was held in Tokyo, the Japanese immigration context also framed the debate.

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Global Citizenship Expert Reviews Japan’s Open Future











I’d like to share a recent review of my book Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship by Dr. Hans Schattle, an expert on global citizenship and author of the 2007 book The Practices of Global Citizenship

I have not yet had the chance to read Schattle’ s book, but according to the Amazon review, it “provides a detailed and vivid account of how the term global citizenship has been interpreted and communicated in recent years,” and it “includes numerous fascinating conversations with global citizens from many nations, revealing how notions of global citizenship have been put in practice by an ever-increasing number of governing institutions, non-governmental organizations, corporations, schools, and universities.”

 It was exciting therefore to be reviewed by a global citizenship expert who could assess Japan’s Open Future in this broader context. Dr. Schattle wrote the review for Global Asia, a publication of the East Asia Foundation. The East Asia Foundation was established in Seoul in January 2005 with the goal of promoting “peace, prosperity security and sustainability in East Asia,” while Global Asia aims to “provide a compelling, serious, and responsible forum for distinguished thinkers, policymakers, political leaders and business people to debate the most important issues in Asia today.”

Here is his review in full.

“THE CONCEPT OF ‘global citizenship’ has gained momentum in recent years as a metaphor to describe both communities of individuals and professional and advocacy networks that operate across national boundaries. While global citizenship often comes across as an idea that transcends the limits of nationalism, much of the contemporary public discourse on global citizenship also uses the concept as a way to evaluate the policies and practices of national governments. It is this view of global citizenship, as a series of enlightened and responsive policy choices carried out by nation-states, that drives the authors of a sweeping new volume, Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship. John Haffner, Tomas Casas I Klett, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann have channeled their experiences in academic and business circles in Japan into a tour de force of the country’s recent history and the imperative for Japan to establish a new foreign policy ‘rooted in an enlarged conception of humanity that identifies Japan’s interests integrally with the fate of people everywhere.’
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Noblesse Oblige from Japan Tobacco














The Wall Street Journal has just translated from Japanese a hilarious interview with Hiroshi Kimura, ostensibly Japan Tobacco Inc.’s president and chief executive. Either we are being had by another Sascha Baron Cohen character, or the translator is a  wicked prankster. This is high comedy: 

… Mr. Kimura has a law degree from Kyoto University and joined the company in 1976 when it was still a government domestic monopoly called Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp. “I wanted to work for an international firm, and so Japan Tobacco initially wasn’t within my top 10 choices, but it helped that I liked tobacco,” said Mr. Kimura, who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.

WSJ: What did you learn from your first job?

Mr. Kimura: … When I first joined I learned from a senior the [French] phrase noblesse oblige, which I understood to mean not shirking the responsibilities of your position. In my early days I was given many challenging tasks to stretch my abilities, which gave me the foundation to develop into the manager I am today.

WSJ: Who gave you the best business advice?

Mr. Kimura: Our customers. As a cigarette company, similar to makers of food or medicine, our products are consumed by our customers and have a direct impact on their lives. To meet their high expectations, we have to be constantly aware of the market pulse and make trusted and preferred products.

Cleopatra’s Dessert and Shark Fin Soup








At a Brussels nuclear law conference in 2007, I gave a technical paper on intergenerational issues in nuclear waste economics. I argued for the prudence of applying a conservative discount rate when setting aside funds for future nuclear waste management so as to guard against contingencies. Recently I had the chance to look at my argument again with fresh eyes when I obtained a copy of the conference proceedings (published by Bruylant), and I was struck by one passage that may be of broader interest, especially given what happened between 2007 and now in global financial markets:  

“The fifth and final argument for [a conservative discount rate] is the possibility of some unforeseen event that could dramatically change the economic circumstances of one country or another. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the mathematician and former trader argues that history is dominated by highly improbable, high impact events. He cautions that markets are poor predictors of war, for example, that government predictions are generally unreliable, and that the accuracy of a forecast ‘degrades rapidly as you extend it through time.’ Or as he cautions in a nutshell: ‘No one in particular is a good predictor of anything. Sorry.’

The  Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to rapid – and quite unforeseeen – devaluation of the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah. Argentina’s economy, meanwhile, experienced hyperinflation in the late 1980s and then collapsed between 1999 and 2002. Japan actually experienced deflation and a zero interest rate policy between 2001 and 2005, quite at odds with economic predictions for the country two decades earlier (and also at odds with what one would expect of the world’s second largest economy). These examples give us pause, because Argentina, Japan and Korea have nuclear plants, and Thailand announced plans in June 2007 to build the country’s first nuclear plant. All will need [nuclear waste] repositories in time. But more within the spirit of Taleb’s argument, the better lesson is to recognize that we have no idea where the next financial crisis will occur.”

The last sentence was meant as a general warning, not a premonition. We may have recognized the lesson of that sentence for now – humility – but we’re likely to forget it again in the next bull market.

As for the title of this post, it comes from the fact that seemingly small human preferences at one moment in time – apparently marginal increments of utility or enjoyment – can have huge impacts on future generations. As Cowen and Parfit write (I quote them in my paper), “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra [the ruler of ancient Egypt] wanted an extra helping of dessert.” The example sounds far-fetched, right? But the issue is whether incremental forms of consumption and enjoyment at the expense of the environment today – widespread enjoyment of shark fin soup, for example – are set to have similarly dramatic and harmful impacts on future generations.

As the British economist F.P. Ramsey wrote in an important paper in 1928 (“A Mathematical Theory of Saving,”), to “discount later enjoyments in comparison with earlier ones … is “a practice which is ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Sadly, and ironically, Ramsey died only two years after writing those words, only 26 years old, and with the wisdom of someone who had lived much longer.

Foreign Workers in Japan: Please Close the Door When You Leave



A recent episode of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered discusses Japan’s (mis)treatment of foreign workers; my Japan book co-author, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, is interviewed just after five minutes into the seven minute program. It’s also worth listening for the politician Taro Kono’s candid comments about 3:28 into the interview.  

A recent New York Times article, “Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home, Forever,” provides some further context (the photo by is from a town hall meeting in Hamamatsu; see the photo essay accompanying the article).

As Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, is quoted in the New York Times, “It’s a disgrace. It’s cold-hearted … And Japan is kicking itself in the foot … We might be in a recession now, but it’s clear it doesn’t have a future without workers from overseas.”