Why do similar modern democracies like the United States and Japan have strikingly different immigration policies? Despite both countries having post-industrial economies in need of qualified, skilled labor, their policies in regard to this crucial issue remain on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. While one would think that countries as developmentally analogous as the United States and Japan would share similar policies and goals in regard to immigration, this is hardly the case. The United States takes a very liberal approach to immigration and accepts it as a regular and necessary utility of society; Japan, on the other hand, implements a much more restrictive policy and views immigration more as a last resort than anything close to a necessity. In total, the United States accepts between seven and eight times more immigrants than Japan (Hollander). These distinct differences in policy come from two main sources; dissimilarities in both culture and governmental structure play a large role in the variance of immigration policies in these two, otherwise comparable, countries.
The first, and perhaps most significant, factor in the differences in immigration policy between the United States and Japan is the cultural factor relating to the histories of these two countries. Both countries’ immigration policies are primarily built upon how immigration was viewed in the past. For example, the United States has a strong history of immigration; as the first settlers of the nation were immigrants themselves, it seemed only natural for the early established governments to accept and encourage legal immigration. In fact, until 1875 the United States had no national restrictions limiting immigration in any way; this lack of policy coupled with the fact that many policymakers saw immigration as a vital part of economic growth led to widespread immigration throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s (Adolino 110). This period of mass immigration has led to a continuing tradition of accepting most forms of legal immigration into the country. In fact, this tradition is so strongly ingrained in the country’s history that the United States is one of the few industrialized nations to recently pass legislation further increasing immigration quotas (Adolino 111). This increase led to 9.1 million legal immigrants being accepted into the country during the 1990’s, the most during any decade; as a result, over ten percent of the nation is now foreign-born (Pantoja, Persaud). Clearly, as the United States was built upon immigration, its policies continue to reflect this historical precedent.
On the other hand, Japan has a long history of restricting immigration. This deep rooted rejection of immigration stems from a historical preference for a traditional, homogenous society; this preference has led Japan to have the smallest foreign population of any industrialized country with foreigners making up just over one percent of the population (Adolino 115). Japan’s perceived animosity towards immigration is built upon three central principles: foreign workers should be admitted only as a last resort, unskilled labor will admitted under no circumstances, and all foreigners will be admitted on a purely temporary basis; these principles, most notably the prohibition of permanent settlers, deter many foreigners from applying for immigration into the country (Adolino 115). Even with an increase in immigration during the 1990’s, these old principles still keep legal immigration low despite a low and steadily decreasing fertility rate, declining labor supply, and policies encouraging reduced work hours (Adolino 115). By ignoring the looming labor shortage, it is clear that Japan’s restrictive history still plays a significant role in the formation of immigration policies.
Just as history plays a significant role in the differences in policy between the United States and Japan, public opinion also influences the formation of immigration policies. In both of these countries, public opinion tends to derive from and agree most with views drawn from the countries’ historical backgrounds. The United States long history of extensive legal immigration has led to a large majority of citizens to be immigrants or descendants of immigrants themselves; this fact plays a large role in influencing the public opinion of the nation as a whole. As most citizens are in some way related to an immigrant, the nation accepts immigration as a normal function of society. In fact, it is an almost national belief that firm restrictions on legal immigration are unethical and contradictory to the country’s tradition (Adolino 111). This general support for legal immigration has kept the immigration policies in the United States one of the most accepting and liberal among developed, industrialized countries.
Likewise, Japan’s public opinion is also built upon the country’s historical background. Just as Japan has condemned immigration in the past, public opinion also generally has a very negative view on immigration, both legal and illegal. Most citizens continue to believe in a homogenous society and accept the three defining principles outlined above; accordingly, a Japanese survey found that thirty-three percent of citizens reject legal immigration regardless of the line of employment pursued by the immigrant (Planel). While it was also found that sixty percent of citizens would either support or have no objection to immigrants taking a job that no other citizen would work, the thirty-three percent representing staunch anti-immigration views continues to keep the government resolutely against immigration (Planel). Additionally, this anti-immigration group of citizens along with an unwavering government causes many interest groups to put little time and effort into the pro-immigration cause. As these interest groups and public opinion are at best neutral towards immigration, the Japanese government has done little in changing the long standing policies rejecting immigration.
The final cause of the rift in immigration policies between the United States and Japan is the structure of the nations’ governments. As the structure influences the means by which legislation is introduced, passed, and implemented, it holds a large role in the policy process. One key element in the structure of the United States government is the large, influential role of interest groups. Due to weak party discipline, interest groups can many times influence both the development and implementation of legislation; moreover, interest groups often make specific proposals for legislation directly to the bureaucracy and legislature (Adolino 77). This involvement by interest groups helps make public more relevant in terms of governmental influence; as public opinion is generally positive towards legal immigration, interest groups aid in the development of pro-immigration legislation. Similarly, many Japanese interest groups can also have a great deal of influence over the policy making process through relations with party officials and roles on advisory councils (Adolino 80). This once again promotes public opinion and portrays the public’s negative opinion of immigration on the government. A second factor relating to governmental structure is the uniqueness of the Japanese parliament. Unlike most typical parliaments, the Japanese prime minister lacks a disciplined majority party in the legislature (Adolino 79). This division in ideology can often lead to difficulties in enacting key policy initiatives as compromise is necessary for a policy to be accepted by both parties; this compromise frequently results in less radical policies than those produced in a traditional parliament. As radical or drastic changes in policy are unlikely, it is much harder for Japan to deviate from its current view on immigration policy.
As can be seen, the main causes of the differences in immigration policy between Japan and the United States stem from cultural factors. Despite the countries being similar in the fact that they are post-industrial democracies, cultural factors, most notably country histories and public opinion, create a divergence in immigration policy. As such, it is clear that both countries are deeply rooted in their nations’ past views on immigration and seem reluctant to stray from these ideas despite the necessity to. While job (United States) and labor (Japan) shortages have caused these countries to begin to see immigration with increasing neutrality, the change is slow, and dissimilarities between the two remain many due mainly to these cultural factors.
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