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.”

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.


13 thoughts on “Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan

  1. I remember reading an article about the dropping birthrate in Japan awhile ago but didn’t think the effect was as profound as you have stated here. Very informative piece, thanks for posting!

  2. As for the “leftist” concern about more immigration, here’s another:
    Japan lacks the cultural, educational and political resources to fruitfully absorb a surge in immigration. If immigration were to be increased at the speed required to restore the demographic balance to that more ideal for economic growth, you would quickly see the emergence of a permanent underclass.
    There are now quite a few poor people in Japan. But there is no “underclass” comparable to what you’d find in, say, the U.S. or some Western European countries.
    There is no great political battle between northerners and southerners, or Shinto versus Buddhist or so on and that homogeneity enables Japan to limit the regeneration of poverty, even in the absence of rapid economic growth.
    This isn’t to say Japan cannot have an immigration surge. In fact, I would argue that their survival as a first-world country depends on it. But they will have to put it off for a while and, more important, they will have to immediately start a crash program preparing the cultural, political, educational and economic institutions of the country for a new multi-cultural society…

  3. Thanks for the kind feedback, energy saving light bulbs and CB.

    McDaddyo, thanks for adding another good left-wing concern. As you probably know the rich poor divide is widening in Japan in any event, but I take your point on the risk of a permanent underclass as a legitimate concern. I also agree that Japan should start a crash course to prepare for life beyond the status quo, but I would advocate for a crash course on globalization. Far from being excluded until Japan feels ready to meet them, immigrants could help with the curriculum directly (more globalized universities and companies, English language proficiency, new models of entrepreneurship, new diplomatic relations, etc.). Not unlike the difference between preparing for a date and going on a date, there is only so much Japan can do to prepare for interaction with people from elsewhere apart from actually meeting people from elsewhere.

    Meanwhile a Japanese female friend wrote me with another good argument in favour of more immigration: “In order to sponsor a domestic helper, you have to be a foreigner, working for a foreign company and you have to have children. Not much hope for a Japanese couple. The reason in my view why women in Southeast Asian countries (e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore) are doing well socially is because they have domestic help. Immigration would contribute to the advancement of Japanese women in society as well.”

    Lastly, here is another very interesting perspective on the above piece:

    Thank you for your interest, Momus (or imomus).

  4. I like that, Momus. It is indeed a bit like dating — not something you’re ever sure you’re ready. You can only prepare by going in unprepared.
    It also occurs to me that foreigners need to play a more active role in “helping” Japan. Specifically, foreigners need to help Japan come up with ways to preserve the cultural unity of their culture that is so essential to the country’s very impressive economic and social success.
    At the moment, the preception, based only partly on reality, is that this unity is based entirely on ethnicity. But it isn’t, really. While there is, for example, some tension between ethnic Korean Japanese and non-Korean Japanese, there is also a high-degree of assimilation and very little of the kind of bitterness and day-by-day conflict — from political tussles to gang murders — you find between ethnic groups in a place like the U.S.
    Alas, I’d be the last to suggest that the Korean integration model in Japan is a valuable one, but I cite it merely as an example showing that other ethnicities can at least in theory integrate without utterly destroying the “wa” as it were.
    And it shows there at least COULD be a model developed that would allow Japan to maintain the benefits of its culture while shedding once and for all its burgeoning liabiilties.

  5. I stumbled across this by chance and couldn’t help but feel the question is largely irrelevant. Japan is not really faces with the question of whether or not to accept more immigrants because immigrants are not clammering at the boarders trying to get in. Nor do I imagine they are likely to be in the near future.

    In 2008, the top 15 industrialized countries of the world were swamped with over 600,000 claims of asylum. Japan just over 1000 despite being much closer to high immigrants and refugee producing countries (China, India, Sri Lanka, etc) These statistics mirror applications for other forms of immigration (such as marriage, reunification, and business classes). Why does Japan get so few applicants? One might postulate that it has something to do with having the lowest rate of acceptance of industrialized nations, afterall Japan has only accepted just over 450 refugees in the last 25 years. However, non refugee accepting, and non-UN convention countries such as Malaysia see tens of thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants despite the harsh justice (e.g. canning) they face if found out.

    The reality is that Japan has an incredibly complex culture. Fo most immigrants, who are without a working knowledge of Japanese or the culture, the chance of successful integration is minute and heck the chance of successfully navigating around Tokyo is not much better. Immigrants need a minimal foothold. For example the prevelance of English as a second language in the community or in business, or the presense of significant diaspora communities to help integration. Japan simply doesn’t have what the 21st century immigrant is seeking regardless of whether Japan decides to open their doors or not.

  6. Maybe the left could rethink its love affair with abortion and contraception? I believe the western and Japanese practice of killing off unwanted children might have something to do with our demographic decline?

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