Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan

Jan 19, 2010

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."

In theory, Japan could counteract this decline through increases in immigration, but this is easier imagined than done. To stabilize the population at its current level, Japan would need to increase the immigrant population from about two million—the lowest proportion of foreigners of any OECD country—to roughly 17 million immigrants by 2050. Put differently, whereas it now admits in the order of 50,000 immigrants a year, it would need to admit something like 650,000 a year instead.

Even if such a dramatic increase is unlikely, there are good reasons for Japan to admit many more immigrants in the coming decades.

Arguments for More Immigration

There are at least four reasons why Japan should admit more immigrants. First, Japan urgently needs a new taxpayer base given the population inversion as described above. Its debt will soon exceed 200 percent of its GDP, its pension system is significantly underfunded, and even its much lauded medical system is headed towards major cost challenges with its aging and long-lived population. Also, many of its rural regions especially anticipate shortages of workers and taxpayers. It is difficult to see how an ever-shrinking workforce will generate the productivity and growth needed to address this range of looming concerns.

Second, Japan's capacity to create new wealth—as measured by start-ups and other measures of entrepreneurship—has atrophied. Immigrants would bring a fresh entrepreneurial spirit and capability: new business ideas, new sources of capital, and new global connections. In an increasingly interdependent world, immigrants' global connections could counteract the disadvantage Japan has with its cultural homogeneity.

Third, immigrants would bring greater facility with languages other than Japanese, including English, the global lingua franca. Despite its enormous wealth and the great literacy of its population, Japan has consistently ranked at the bottom in TOEFL scores among Asian countries. This is not for lack of trying: By one estimate Japan's ESL industry is $20 billion per year. Immigrants with native English language facility—not just from the West but also from places like Ghana and the Philippines—would bring improved linguistic competence and a more diverse classroom environment. Fourth and finally, there are arguments from the perspective of the immigrants themselves: of opportunities for a better life, of remittances sent home to assist family members, of personal fulfillment and expression through mobility and career development.

Arguments against More Immigration

Arguments against greatly increased immigration in Japan can be divided roughly into what might be characterized as right-wing and left-wing concerns.

One right-wing worry is that admitting more immigrants would harm Japanese culture by diluting or even degrading it. But Japanese culture is dynamic, not static, and it has always been influenced in significant ways by other cultures and immigrants. As its population drops and ages, moreover, many aspects of Japanese culture may wane in the absence of new generations to renew them. But if millions of immigrants are given economic opportunities in Japan, there would be more people studying Japanese, filling empty seats in its universities, and renewing Japanese arts and sports. In Japan's Open Future, my co-authors and I point to the example of the Chinese American artist Liga Pang, who has done so much to revitalize the Sogetsu Ikebana school. Pang powerfully demonstrates how immigrants can renew aspects of Japanese culture.

A second right-wing worry is that immigrants would cause a spike in social tensions and crime. The concern about social tensions has some validity: Japanese and immigrants would need to learn to live together; immigrants would need to adapt to customary norms while Japanese would need to be tolerant of differences. But the challenge is not insoluble. The concern about foreigners and crime, meanwhile, is highly distorted and exaggerated in Japan. As Mabuchi Ryogo of Nara University points out, for example, crimes by foreigners are almost five times as likely to be covered in Japanese media as crimes by Japanese. The law-abiding majority of immigrants would bring benefits far outweighing the downside of occasional social tensions and criminal behavior.

The left-wing standpoint, meanwhile, starts not by excluding outsiders but by promoting the idea of a smaller country. If Japan drops to a population of 100 million or less, the country will have a significantly smaller environmental footprint and lesser use of resources than it does now. And if it manages to drop its population while maintaining its wealth, it will be able to set an example for a world headed towards overpopulation and overconsumption. In this spirit some environmentalists in Japan look favorably on what are being called "herbivores" in Japan: men who have grown up in the post-bubble era who consume few products and have little interest in dating women. Herbivores point to the idea a much less carbon-intensive society.

But this interesting argument champions a smaller good over a larger one. Given the enormity of the global climate problem, especially in Asia, and given Japan's energy and environmental expertise, the world needs Japan contributing solutions. But a smaller Japan without its economic house in order would be a country unlikely to contribute very much. In a word: Japan's smaller footprint would be a lesser contribution than if it fully applied its capabilities toward the global climate challenge. The point is even more obvious when we recall that the immigrants in question—even if they are not in Japan—would still be living somewhere else, adding their carbon footprint to the global atmospheric total.

Significant Immigration Increase Unlikely

Alas, even if there is a strong case for more immigration, it is unlikely that Japan will embark on a bold expansion. It seems more likely that Japan will only tinker with its immigration levels.

For one thing, the cultivation of the fear of foreigners is not a new phenomenon: It goes back centuries. More recently the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which held a monopoly on power for many decades, capitalized on and reinforced a popular fear of foreigners in some of its policies. And even those immigrants who are admitted are often integrated only shallowly into the country as means and not ends, as temporary worker commodities.

Sure, one might say, but what about the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) coming to power? One of the most conspicuous features of the August 2009 election—otherwise meant to herald a new era of change—was the absence of a strong immigration policy on the part of either the DPJ or the LDP, notwithstanding the importance of the issue for the country's future. And under the DPJ, the LDP policy continues, and government officials are far more preoccupied with cracking down on illegal "overstayers" than introducing pro-immigration policies and educational initiatives. As for the general public, it is rapidly aging and becoming a nation of retirees, and it is doubtful that these silver-haired voters will support proposals for a major influx of foreigners in their quiet communities.

The World's Loss

For many years Japan has fretted about its shrinking population. Interestingly enough, these worries have not translated into strong political or popular support for a revised immigration policy. Instead, the default orientation continues to limit immigrants, and arguments on the other side are muted. Despite the many potential benefits of more immigration in Japan—economic and cultural renewal, remittances, personal fulfillment, global linkages, and others—the country is likely to do no more than tinker with its immigration levels.

By implication, therefore, Japan is also likely to become a smaller, more debt-laden and less productive country in the coming decades, and regrettably, less of a player in global efforts to solve pressing challenges like climate change. If Japan goes gently into the good night of its retirement, that will be the world's loss.

John Haffner is the lead author, with Dr. Tomas Casas i Klett and Dr. Jean-Pierre Lehmann, of Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship (Anthem Press, March 2009); he is writing in a personal capacity while also drawing on some arguments from that book. He wishes to thank the organizers of the Sophia University conference: James Farrer, Midori Okabe, and Devin Stewart, his fellow panelists, and audience members, for an excellent conference and two days of engaging discussions.

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