Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan

Here is a paper I contributed to the Carnegie Council’s journal Policy Innovations following a Sophia University conference on migration.

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.”

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Do People Have a Right to Move Across National Borders?

This was the question explored at a recent interdisciplinary conference in Tokyo, jointly sponsored by Sophia University and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, where I was lucky enough to be a panelist. After the conference, James Farrer of Sophia University and Devin T. Stewart of the Carnegie Council prepared an excellent summary of what we discussed. Here it is – recommended reading for anyone interested in immigration or refugee issues.

The goal of declaring a “right to move” proved elusive at a two-day symposium onimmigration ethics at Sophia University in Tokyo, held in cooperation with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (Dec. 12–13, 2009). While many of the participants, and certainly both of us, started out with the hope of issuing a strong declaration on the rights of people to move across national borders, several obstacles emerged. Given that the conference was held in Tokyo, the Japanese immigration context also framed the debate.

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Tweeting and the Public Sphere

I’m not sure if this is for real but it does seem that the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has a twitter page. See here. (Thanks to Paul Waldman for the tip).  Since Habermas is noted for his long and complicated sentences, it will be curious to see what he can do with 140 characters or less. I noticed that a recent thought bubble was a done in the form of a series of tweets:

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Salinger & family

Salinger's most famous book.

There will be many obituaries and tributes to J.D. Salinger, who died yesterday. I said my piece about him in a review of his daughter’s memoir, which ran in the National Post on Sept. 10, 2000. Here it is:


By Margaret A. Salinger Washington Square Press, 436 pp., $39.95

Although he keeps flunking out of school, Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, is a smart kid. For a 16-year-old he can make surprisingly useful literary distinctions, for example noting that only some good books make us curious about the author. “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

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Avatar and the Way We Live Now

James Cameron amid his mechanical marvels.

Avatar has elicited a great deal of political commentary, much of it of the extremely simpleminded “Hollywood is too liberal” variety. The novelist John Crowley and the commentators on his blog have the most sophisticated take noting: that the movie rehashes many familiar tropes from the history of European/First Nations contact, particularly the myth of Pocohantas; the it leans heavily also on New Wave science fiction, particularly Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Word For World is Forest”; that the most troubling aspect of the movie is that it regurgitates the myth of the white saviour; and that the story is deliberately simpleminded so that the audience can focus their attention on what really matters. All true enough. (As a side-side note, an interesting essay could be written about filmmaker James Cameron and New Wave science fiction, which he clearly read a lot of in the 1970s. Many of his movies, notably the first two Terminator films, owe a great deal to New Wave science fiction).

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The Trouble with Earthquake Prediction and Haiti

Florin Diacu's timely new book


As the ongoing tragedy in Haiti makes clear, earthquakes remain a great blight on humanity. One question worth asking is what is the best way to deal with earthquakes, through prediction or by trying to build more securely in earthquake zones. Writing in the New York Times, geophysicist Susan Hough noted that “scientists have been chasing earthquake prediction — the holy grail of earthquake science — for decades … Yet we have little to no real progress to show for our efforts.” Some scientists have gone so far to argue that earthquake prediction is like alchemy: not a real science but an impossible dream.

I discuss these issue with the mathimatician  Florin Diacu, whose recent book Megadisasters has a good discussion of the subject. My conversation with Diacu can be found here. I’ve pasted the relevant section of Diacu’s book below.

For some interesting observations on Haitian history, I recommend the following pieces by Scott McLemee and Slavoj Zizek.

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Chatting About Culture With Coren

Portman: would you have preferred a picture of Coren?

Michael Coren is a Canadian journalist, a cultural conservative whose every sentence is inflicted with a tangy cockney undergrowl. Aside from much columnizing, he has a daily talk show. Every once and awhile, I go on the show as part of his regular “arts panel”. You can see the show I most recently appeared on  here.

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Shakespeare-Hatred: An Underground Literary Tradition

Shaw: No Lover of Shakespeare He

Over at Crooked Timber, they are having a lively discussion  provoked by George Bernard Shaw’s scorn for Shakespeare. On many occasions Shaw expressed extreme distain for the Bard of Avon. In a 1906 letter Shaw wrote “I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him.”

Shaw’s opinion are easy to dismiss, it is often forgotten that there is a long and venerable tradition of Shakespeare-hatred, a critical tradition that includes not just crank and reflexive contrarians but also some very great writers. Aside from Shaw, Voltaire and Leo Tolstoy were also vociferously hostile to Stratford’s favourite son. Voltaire actually started off as a champion of Shakespeare but turned against the English writer’s plays. More recently the novelist Joyce Carol Oates (in her collection Contraries) and mad-dog essayist Marvin Mudrick have taken aim at Shakespeare.

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Popeye the Crossdressing Man

Nisby the Newsboy, May 20 1906.

My earlier post on historical representations of gays in the comics garnered many interesting comments and responses. I wanted to take an opportunity to point out a few of them and also make some further notes on the topic.

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Climate Change and Existentialism

J.P. Sartre: philospher of collective action

At its core, climate change is essentially a collective action problem. The political scientist Stephen Walt has a very fine blog post which lays out why collective action on this issue is so difficult:

In addition to the scientific uncertainties (not about the fact of climate change, but about the impact of different policy responses), dealing with man-made climate change is a classic collective action problem. All countries would like to avoid the consequences of atmospheric warming, but they would also like someone else to pay the costs of addressing it. Furthermore, the worst negative consequences won’t be evenly distributed and won’t occur for several decades, which means that today’s leaders would have to impose costs on their citizens now in order to leave future generations better off. That’s do-able, but hardly a tempting prospect for most politicians. In addition, there is still no consensus on the best way to proceed: some states favor “cap and trade” systems while other prefer a straightforward “carbon tax.” Finally, the main polluters are in very different economic circumstances; the developed world created the problem but now wants to get rising powers like China and India to undertake potentially costly measures that could slow their own growth. Needless to say, that’s not very attractive to Beijing or New Delhi. Toss in the reality that any agreement would be unwieldy, expensive, and rife with verification problems, and you have an issue that makes reforming health care here in the United States look absurdly simple by comparison.

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