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Fear of losing Trump on trade and defense lies behind Abe’s silence over ‘Muslim ban’

by Sophie Jackman

Kyodo

While Japan’s peers in Europe and elsewhere have voiced alarm over U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order limiting immigration and refugees, Tokyo has remained nearly silent.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has eschewed any criticism of Friday’s order, which barred nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, halted the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and suspended indefinitely the intake of refugees from war-torn Syria.

Abe has said he is “not in a position to comment” on the move.

“It is up to (individual) countries to decide how they want to control immigration,” he told the Upper House Budget Committee on Tuesday.

Abe’s tepid response chiefly reflects his reluctance to upset Trump before confirming the president’s commitment to the Japan-U.S. security alliance, said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a professor at Toyo University’s department of media and communications.

Trump’s issuing of the order nearly overlapped with a telephone call with Abe, in which the leaders agreed to meet in Washington on Feb. 10 for their first face-to-face talks since Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Trump’s election on an “America First” platform has prompted concern he could leave Japan to fend for itself in the face of nuclear and missile threats from North Korea and China’s expansionary activities at sea. Under the current bilateral security treaty, the United States is required to “act to meet the common danger” if Japan comes under armed attack.

“Abe has made much of the need to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance with Trump, so he has to try to get along with him for now, even though no one in Japan is voicing support for the executive order,” Yakushiji said.

Yakushiji said Abe has made the judgment that voters worry more about security and economic issues than the plights of refugees or ethnic and religious minorities.

“Japanese people, on the whole, aren’t fond of Trump and don’t think he will last the full four years in office. … But for various historical reasons, there is a lack of sensitivity here to human rights issues that don’t involve fellow Japanese people,” he said.

Like some of its Western European peers whose leaders have condemned Trump’s order, Japan is faced with a rapidly aging population. But unlike those countries, Japan has chosen not to encourage immigration to combat the demographic shift.

The Abe administration has decided to expand certain visa categories to bring in workers in limited fields but is careful to refer to them as “foreign laborers” and never as “immigrants.”

As for the part of Trump’s order pertaining to refugees, Japan’s record on the issue makes it difficult to mount a criticism, said Eri Ishikawa, chairwoman at the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees.

Japan pays a great deal in aid to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees but grants asylum to very few people. Just 27 applicants were recognized as refugees in 2015, a tiny fraction of the 7,586 applications that year. In contrast, the United States granted asylum to more than 26,000 people the same year.

“Refugee issues are hardly ever in the headlines here, but for several days now Japanese people have been unable to ignore the results of (Trump’s) extreme action,” Ishikawa said.

“The United States could end up serving as a mirror for Japanese people to take notice of their own country’s practices on refugees and seek a change,” she said.

Trump has insisted that the order is for Americans’ safety and that the exclusion of would-be travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen does not amount to a “Muslim ban.”

A lone notable voice in Japan protesting the order, Rakuten Inc. Chief Executive Officer Hiroshi Mikitani, posted on Twitter on Monday that it is “wrong as a human being” to uniformly discriminate “based on religion and nationality.”

The e-commerce magnate, who went to graduate school in the United States, said he is “very sad to see what is happening now.”

The Abe administration is likely wary of souring relationships with business heavyweights amid a public-private effort to persuade Trump on the benefits of Japanese companies operating in the U.S.

But with so much still unclear about the new administration’s foreign policy outlook, Abe’s priority for now will be to avoid ruffling feathers in Washington, Yakushiji said.

Trump’s election and actions in office, including his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, have complicated the prime minister’s options for impressing voters with economic and foreign policy victories.

“To get a critical response out of Abe, Trump will have to either demand more money from Japan to host the U.S. military, do something to escalate tensions with China or make some sort of compromise with North Korea,” Yakushiji said.

If past statements are a guide, the Abe administration’s take on the outcomes of next week’s summit will include a confirmation of the basic values that Japan and the United States share, obliquely drawing a line between the allies and China.

Notwithstanding the global uproar over Trump’s actions, and Japan’s lack of a substantive response, human rights are likely to be touted as sacrosanct to both nations.