Can Immigration Reform Really Save Japan?

Japanese population is set for an inexorable slide. Current forecasts predict a population of 86 million by 2060, with almost 40 per cent over the age of 65. Only immigration can save it. And a former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau proposes bringing in 10 million migrants over 50 years.

Posted on 06/6/14
By Chris Burgess | Via East Asia Forum
Japan faces an aging and shrinking population. (Photo by Robert Huffstutter, Creative Commons License)
Japan faces an aging and shrinking population. (Photo by Robert Huffstutter, Creative Commons License)

Recent demographic forecasts make for grim reading — after peaking at 128 million in 2008, the Japanese population is set for an inexorable slide. Current forecasts predict a population of 86 million by 2060, with almost 40 per cent over the age of 65. Although the populations of other developed countries are also shrinking and aging, Japan is experiencing aging at a much faster pace than any other country.Japan’s rapid aging is due to a combination of rising life expectancy and falling birth rates. Today, Japanese live longer and produce fewer children than almost any other country.


Only immigration can save Japan: this is the message of Hidenori Sakanaka, a former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. He proposes bringing in 10 million migrants over 50 years. In making his case for opening up Japan he cites a mountain of demographic evidence — specifically the declining and aging population, and shrinking workforce.


Those who tout immigration as a way out of Japan’s current economic and demographic ‘crises’ need to answer two questions. First, to what extent can immigration reform actually help? And second, is immigration reform even feasible in the current climate? The short answers to these two questions are not much and no.


For those who see immigration reform as a cure-all for Japan’s ills, a 2000 UN report makes for sobering reading. The report, entitled Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?, points out that Japan will need to accept more than 600,000 immigrants a year until 2050 simply in order to sustain its economy at 1995 levels (that is, to keep the size of the working-age population constant). And although the arrival of younger migrants may nudge down Japan’s median age there is no guarantee they will also have more children. Those settling down in Japan will be affected by the same disincentives — insufficient childcare support, poor work–life balance and high education and other costs — that discourage Japanese from having more (or in many cases any) children. Clearly, immigration is not a solution to the problem of the low birth rate.


Also, regarding the feasibility of immigration reform, the issue is largely neglected in legal, media and popular discourse. And the term ‘migrant’ is often replaced by euphemisms such as ‘entrants’ and ‘foreign workers’. Perceptions of Japanese as being unique and homogeneous continue to play a key role in structuring both Japanese national identity and social reality. This still dominant and pervasive discourse manifests itself in the policymaking domain as the ‘no immigration principle’, an institutionalization of the ‘homogenous people’ idiom. The principle basically states that Japan is not welcoming of migrants. On the policy side this means that foreigners in general are deterred from staying long or settling down.


The ‘no immigration principle’ continues to be broadly supported by the Japanese public and reflected in public policy. A November 2013 CNNMoney article noted that the one thing missing from Abenomics was immigration reform. Certainly, Abe himself has bent over backwards to avoid the ‘i’ word: in a joint meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Industrial Competitiveness Council in April, Abe stressed that ‘we should be careful not to mistake the “utilization” of foreign workers in nursing care and house-keeping as immigration’.


Against a background of strong public fear over the deterioration of public safety, the only reforms implemented have been ad-hoc and temporary. One example is the proposal to increase the number of foreign workers in national strategic special zones. Another is the expansion of the Technical Intern Training Program for foreigners to allow for longer stays — until fiscal 2020 when demand for construction workers will fall after the Olympics.


Is there any hope for serious immigration reform in Japan? Perhaps progress could be made if strong political will was exercised, but power in Japan tends not to be exercised centrally and even a strong’ prime minister like Abe has to proceed with the utmost caution. Abe could address the ubiquitous campaigns to crack down on ‘illegal’ foreigners, which fuel the ‘foreign crime’ discourse. Deconstructing the myths that foreigners commit more crime than Japanese and that migration threatens Japanese jobs and salaries would be a start.


But the persisting ‘no immigration principle’ means that reform proposals such as Sakanaka’s remain a pie in the sky.


Chris Burgess is a professor at Tsuda College, Tokyo, Japan, where he lectures in Japanese studies. This article first appeared in the East Asia Forum.

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