President Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan walk to the Oval Office on April 10. Craig Hudson for The Washington Post

President Biden called Japan a “xenophobic” country during a campaign event Wednesday evening, putting the U.S. ally in a group with authoritarian rivals such as China and Russia and suggesting that a lack of immigration may be why the nations were “stalling so badly economically.”

The remarks, widely reported Thursday in the Japanese press, came less than a month after Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a high-profile state visit to cement their alliance. The president also suggested that India, another nation that partners with the United States on security measures, was fearful of foreigners in his remarks.

The comments were made at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser at the Mayflower Hotel that marked the start of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which celebrates diversity in the United States. “One of the reasons why our economy is growing is because of you and many others. Why? Because we welcome immigrants,” Biden said, according to a pool report.

“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,” he continued. “Immigrants are what makes us strong. Not a joke. That’s not hyperbole, because we have an influx of workers who want to be here and just contribute,” he added.

Biden’s remarks have not elicited a formal response from the countries he named. Representatives for the embassies of Japan, China, Russia and India in the United States did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post on Thursday. But experts said they were likely to have caused offense, particularly in Japan.

Satona Suzuki, a lecturer in Japanese and modern Japanese history at SOAS University of London, said Biden’s comments were “inappropriate and wrong” and that his idea that Japan’s slow economic growth was simply the result of xenophobia was “shallow and shortsighted.”


“To regard Japan, China and Russia the same is very problematic. This is not the way to treat one of the closest allies,” she said.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden was making the case that “in our DNA, we are a nation of immigrants” and that allies understood what he was saying. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also defended the comments, telling reporters he was unaware of any of the named countries reaching out to the White House, adding that they understood that Biden “completely and utterly values the idea of alliances and partnerships.”

Biden’s remarks cast him in a separate light from his White House rival, former president Donald Trump, who has taken an anti-immigration stance in his reelection bid in November. However, experts disagreed with his analysis.

“You have to conclude that Biden’s mouth moved faster than his brain,” Gerald Curtis, director of Columbia University’s Japan Research Program, said in an email about Biden’s remarks. “Japan may be moving too slowly for its own good in welcoming more foreigners to live and work in the country,” he said, but to “lump it” together with China and Russia was “over the top.”

The comments came amid a period of good relations between the United States and Japan. Last month, Biden hosted the first state dinner for Japan in nearly a decade. “We are the same, Japan and the United States,” Biden told dignitaries gathered at the lavish event in the East Room of the White House for the visiting Japanese leader Kishida. “We may be divided by distance, but generation after generation are brought together by the same hope, the same values, the same commitment to democracy and faith.”

Japan has also been a more prominent ally in recent years, shaking off decades of official pacifism in favor of a more robust security role in Asia.


Last June, Biden also hosted a state visit for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi championing their shared democratic values while doubling down on his criticism of China. The two nations have become more aligned on security matters in recent years as both sought a counterweight to a rising China, with both becoming members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, along with Japan and Australia in 2007.

However, India and the United States are not formal allies. Assassination plots against critics of Modi’s government on U.S. soil and the Indian prime minister’s anti-Muslim rhetoric have led many in Washington to view New Delhi with caution.

Mary McCarthy, professor of politics and international relations at Drake University, said the same was not true of Tokyo. “Japan has been a great friend and ally of the U.S.,” she said. “The two countries need each other for the future of international security and economic prosperity. It is not helpful for the Biden administration’s geopolitical goals to make such comments about Japan.”

McCarthy said that “the declining birthrate and aging population in Japan have led to a need for foreign labor in order to have a successful and growing economy.” The Japanese government had taken steps in recent years to increase foreign workers, she added, “including expanding their skilled worker visa program just this past March.”

According to data from the International Monetary Fund, Japan’s GDP is predicted to grow by 0.9% in 2024, down from 1.9% last year.

India’s growth has also slowed this year, with its GDP forecast to grow by 6.8% – down from 7.8% last year. China is similarly predicted to decelerate with GDP growth of 4.6% predicted this year by the IMF, down from 5.2% in 2023. Russia’s GDP has slowed too from 3.6% last year to predicted growth of 3.2% this year.


The United States’ GDP is forecast to grow by 2.7% this year, up slightly from 2.5% last year, according to IMF data.

“The growth trajectory of the Japanese economy is actually not so bad when looking at per-capita figures. In fact, it is not much different from that of other advanced economies including the U.S.,” Ulrich Volz, professor of economics at SOAS University of London, said in an email.


Karen DeYoung and Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.

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