“We are not in a position to express the view of the Japanese government.” — Shinzo Abe, the head of the Japanese government, speaking on Jan. 30 about U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending resettlement of refugees and sharply restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations
It came as little surprise to hear that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to remain silent on Trump’s highly controversial immigration ban. Yes, Japan has never been as welcoming as most other countries when it comes to accepting immigrants or refugees, but Abe’s current silence has far more to do with business — and not poking the sleeping giant that Trump appears to be. Because of this, Abe is tiptoeing his way around the sharp rhetoric coming from the new U.S. administration.
Fortunately for Abe, however, Trump is someone he can wrap his head around. The prime minister is used to dealing with aggressive, protectionist businessmen far more than globally minded Nobel Peace Prize-winning professors, as Barack Obama was.
Fearing Abe’s silence on Trump’s rhetoric will be permanent (at least as long as Trump remains president), I decided to seek out the views of a number of Japanese ryūgakusei (people who have studied abroad) who still call Japan home. At the very least, I wanted to hear their opinions about Trump, mainly because a silent government does not have to mean a silent electorate.
So, I asked them one question: Has the election of Donald Trump as president changed the way you look at America? I offered them a choice of five answers: a) Yes, for the worse; b) I’m not sure yet; c) Yes, for the better; d) No, it hasn’t; and e) I don’t care/it doesn’t affect me.
I contacted 60 ryūgakusei and received 46 responses. For those who did not respond, I chalked it up to an e). None of those surveyed answered that their view hadn’t changed (d). All of the respondents were between 18 and 40 years old and split somewhat evenly between male and female. Most did not want their full names revealed, for a variety of reasons.
The following is a brief roundup of the results. Paraphrasing is denoted by square brackets, whereas respondents’ own asides use regular parentheses.
Yes, for the worse: 58.3%
Answer a) rolled in like a storm. Very quickly it became clear that anxiety, disappointment and concern were common emotions that cropped up in the majority of responses. Quite often, respondents referred to the position of U.S. president as being that of the “world’s leader,” but Trump is seen as an exception in many ways.
“Trump seeks to earn profits for the United States as businessmen do,” said a man now studying in New York. “America seems to have changed … perspective and is aiming toward protectionism.”
Another issue that stood out strongly was disappointment over the aforementioned executive order (since overturned by a federal judge but heading for the Supreme Court) barring most travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
These new restrictions bothered many of the respondents, who said it went against what actually made America “great” in the first place:
• “The America I know cares about diversity … I respect it.” — Kosuke, mid-20s
• “I’d thought that the U.S., as the world-leading country, was more open to diverse people. However, it turns out that many Americans are not willing to be so open to a diverse population.” — Yu, early 20s
• “The image of America is mostly described as freedom (although there are many laws and there was this massive issue about black people getting shot) and also diverse.” — Tetsugoro, a man in his late 20s, who added that he felt as if “freedom is starting to collapse, and diversity is not respected.”
General reactions of confusion and fear came through too:
• “I cannot see how he is trying to make the world better.” — Kiyomi, 20
“Because of … Trump, now I feel like Americans are not open to foreigners anymore.” — Kazumi, 20
• “Maybe he has been charismatic for some conservatives, but this doesn’t seem right to me. I will probably not feel the same way when I come to the United States next time because I might see hate crimes happening in front of me or against me.” — Satoko, mid-20s
• “The two candidates [Hillary Clinton and Trump] were not good enough. However, still, he was elected. I thought that there is still a glass ceiling in America.” — Masami, late 30s
• “I think that now Trump [is forming] a government that is ‘of the white, by the white and for the white.’ ” — Koichi, early 30s
• “America would not exist without the hard work of immigrants, and it might affect the younger generation who are thinking of studying in the U.S.” — Mai, late 20s
A woman named Mei, who studied business in Seattle, seemed to most succinctly channel the seam of frustration that ran through this category of responses:
• “He uses Twitter every day to say whatever he wants, but it is not the proper way for the president of the United States to speak to the world and also to citizens. His words are so direct and threatening, and he is like a dictator of the world.
“I have always had an image of America as being very open-minded, generous, warm, land of any race, a leader of the world, and full of hope and opportunities. … Donald Trump has reversed all of these. He tells us to ‘respect’ America, as if we are weak and losers. … It makes us feel cheap and stupid. And I don’t like the way he repeats the phrase ‘America First’ when every country has its own internal issues to focus on.”
I’m not sure yet: 23.3%
Many of these respondents were torn between the positive and negative effects of globalization vs. protectionism. Recent world trends have caused many to rethink what they believe is the best way to move forward in the future:
• “Brexit, the rise of populism in Italy, Trump … these series of events make us feel uncertain. These events reflect people’s unconscious mind-set that [nations] should shift from globalism to nationalism, because globalization benefited the rich more than the poor on the surface. I don’t know if this [shift] will turn out to be good or not.” — Daisuke, 20
Other respondents expressed strong concerns about the state of the U.S. media:
• “People are too influenced by the media. It’s like what the media says is absolutely right. I’m not a Trump supporter, but news about him was almost all negative before and after the inauguration. They sometimes ‘cook up’ (or manipulate and sensationalize news), making even normal news bad. … It’s wrong [and not] what media should be about.” — Hidehiko, 19
• “Every day, the Japanese media has also reported various news regarding Trump. [The media want] us to watch their programs more and [attract our attention]. My conclusion is to wait and see his work.” — Shohei, late 20s
• “Every leader wants to make their country better, and so Trump is [trying]. Trump has gotten a lot of spotlight because he uses strong words and a load of ‘bulls—-‘ … but if one of those bulls—- statements comes true, that’s a different story.” — Satoshi, 20
Yes, for the better: 3.3%
It should be noted that the couple of respondents that fell into this bracket did not see Trump himself as having a positive effect as U.S. president. Rather, respondents viewed the result of the election as a chance for the general public to implement change from the ground up.
One respondent in his early 30s stated that, after seeing the election results, he was “surprised to find that America didn’t have much confidence in their democracy.” However, having seen the hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets during and after the inauguration, he said: “I realized that (Americans) were not as cynical about politics (unlike Japan). I am optimistic about the future of America.”
The other respondent echoed this feeling of optimism: “So many people just criticize Donald Trump, but we can think of this result in more positive ways if we find the meaning in it. In the case of Japan, we are going to have the Tokyo Assembly election this summer. The election this year cannot be predicted due to the arising power and transformation of parties. So Tokyo people must pay attention to everything!”
Abe is set to meet with Trump on Friday, business being the topic, as well as the inevitable small talk about golf. As Abe attempts to “fulfill (Japan’s) role as (America’s) ally,” while telling Trump that he “hopes the United States will become a greater country through (Trump’s) leadership,” one can only hope that Abe, himself a ryūgakusei, does not become too conciliatory toward Trump’s demands, and keeps in mind the palpable tension many in his own country feel about aligning themselves with America’s new president.
Patrick Parr (www.patrickparr.com) has written for History Today, The Humanist and The Japan Times, among others. His book about Martin Luther King Jr. will be released in 2018. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org