electronic journal of contemporary japanese
Discussion Paper 5 in 2004
First published in ejcjs on
18 October 2004
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The Dilemma Posed by
Japan's Population Decline
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Japan’s population is poised to peak at about 127.5 million people in the
year 2005. From that point on, if the situation remains unchanged, it will
begin a reverse track, contracting markedly to an estimated 105 million
people by 2050. According to the much talked about UN paper on this issue1, this
gross decrease will have a detrimental impact on the nation’s labour force
with grave social and economic consequences. Shōshika, or the trend
towards having fewer children, is by no means unique to Japan – the number
of children born to women in industrialized countries has been in decline
since the 1970s. What is different, however, is the means available to Japan
to somehow try to rectify what could become a cataclysmic imbalance.
Further, the decline in number of births in many other nations has at least
seemingly stabilized. In Japan it is still falling, down to 1.29 children
per women in the latest survey (See Table 1)2.
Table 1: Fertility Rates in Selected Developed Countries
This discussion paper aims briefly to examine the situation Japan faces and
outline the main options put forth by Japan’s leaders in order to preserve
the country’s population. The two most commonly cited ways to stop the
decrease – increasing the birth-rate and/or immigration – the difficulties
posed by each of these and what they reveal about Japanese society, its
systems, leaders and democratic maturity in this age of increasing
interdependence will be examined. As will be discussed later, because
Japan’s leaders seek to polarize the solutions, they ostensibly ignore
debate on other possible ways to alleviate the situation. While I argue in
part that the issue of immigration be afforded greater importance, more
wide-ranging debate needs to be encouraged to allow for other possible
solutions being found. With more research and dialogue the present situation
could be improved to become mutually beneficial to all.
The Problems of a Decreasing Population
Japan is fast becoming the world’s oldest ever human population (by 2025,
27.3%, or 33.2 million people, will be aged over 60) (Cornelius, 1994: 378).
Coupled with the aforementioned low birth rate, the problems Japan faces in
the immediate future are acute. With Japan’s labour force expected to
decrease by 10% in the next 25 years, the economic outlook is far from
bright. In all likelihood the domestic market will shrink, production will
fall3, the government’s
revenue base will contract inexorably and it will struggle to meet welfare
and medical payments for an increasing number of elderly as the dependency
ratio (the number of workers supporting the elderly) will shift
dramatically. In 1950 one elderly person was supported by 12 members of the
working population, by 1990 it was 5.5 workers, and by 2020 it is estimated
to be 2.3 workers. Naturally the government is concerned about such a
scenario4.This leaves the question – how can Japan ease this predicted slide, maintain
its population and therefore ensure economic security and continued
prosperity? As Iyotani has shown, the rural population has all but been
depleted and is no longer the viable supply source of labour it once was5. Other alternatives
too, have almost been exhausted. Making greater use of elderly or female
workers, for example, is difficult as participation rates (especially among
part-time workers) are already quite high (Tsuda, 2001). Similarly, greater
automation has taken place in many industries and moving production offshore
has its limitations. Consequently, the two most plausible possibilities are
either by making more children or through increasing immigration. With
relation to both of these, however, the Japanese government is precariously
Increasing the Baby Count
Japan’s leaders have been aware of the nation’s falling birthrate and its
repercussions for some time. According to Laszlo (2002), the word
shōshika has been appearing in parliamentary records with increased
frequency. In 1992 it appeared just seven times, whereas in 2001 it was
recorded 168 times. The issue was first brought to the public’s attention
after the so-called ‘1.57 Shock’ of 1989 when the overall fertility rate hit
a (then) record low of 1.57 children per women. In 1994, in order to halt
the falling birth rate, a program to support child rearing dubbed the ‘Angel
Plan’ (its official title being “Basic Direction of Measures in Support of
Future Child Rearing”) was initiated, but without significant results.
The Angel Plan initiatives revolve around lessening the burdens of childcare
through counseling services, creating infrastructures to support working
parents, and encouraging attitudinal change from one of fixed male and female
roles to one of dual parenting and shared responsibilities. After revision
in 1999, the ‘New Angel Plan’ focused greater attention on child rearing
support and the placement of day care centres near train stations. Yet many
of these plans simply placed the onus on local governments, which are
already struggling to cope6. Moreover, as will be
seen, they lack social backing due to the government’s failure fully to debate these issues publicly.
One reason for the difficulty the government has had is that the issue of
‘making babies’ is, in Japan, significantly more sensitive than perhaps in
other developed countries. The main reason for this is historic. From around
the 1930s, Japan’s leaders urged women to produce as many children as
possible to fuel the war effort. Under the slogan “umeyō, fuyaseyō”
(let’s give birth! Let’s increase [the size and strength of the nation!])
contraceptive goods disappeared and abortion clinics were closed (White,
2002). As a consequence of such forced policies, Japan’s politicians today
tread wearily around this issue.
Yet the situation in Japan is fast becoming critical and proactive measures
are needed urgently. In March 2002 Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro,
reinitiated debate on how to stem the downward trend of Japan’s birth-rate.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry set up an office named the ‘Anti-Low
Birth Rate Measures Promotion Headquarters’ and has since created new policy
measures aimed at curbing the decline. Before the policies on the table are
examined, first it is useful to examine briefly some of the reasons for the
While opinion is divided, a number of major contributing factors can be
discerned. Jolivet (1997), in a study of Japanese women and childbirth,
examined some of the reasons why Japanese women are recently less inclined
to have children. Most of the reasons found were social and included a
tendency to marry at a later age (and therefore to have children at a later
age – or not at all7) or not marry at all, and to study or work instead of
having children8 (former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro publicly expressed
his regret at the huge number of women entering formal education and thus,
presumably, deterring them from their principal function in life, i.e.
procreating). Goodman (2002) similarly sees the issue as one of lifestyle
choices. Today many women would rather seek a career than start a family and
this trend – while by no means unique to Japan – is certainly more profound
there due to embedded societal constraints9. Terms like ‘parasite single’
(referring to young singles who continue to live with their parents while
working) today reflect this mind-set. For example, only 27.9% of single
female respondents to a recent survey thought child-rearing would be
enjoyable (citing loss of free time as a leading reason)10. Certainly, social
attitudes and trends are important but such things are difficult for the
country’s leaders to change easily (and require the implementation of laws
with ‘teeth’ to back them up). White (2002: 151), on the other hand, tends
to see the main cause for the low birth rate as economic in nature (examined
later), a view shared by Ogawa and others11. Both these social and economic
factors are probably equally responsible but it is the latter which seems
easier for the government to address.
The government’s latest attempt to end the downward trend is named the ‘Plus
One Proposal’ – ‘plus one’ indicating the increase the Ministry of Labor,
Health and Welfare is hoping for in the average number of children per
couple. This new package contains the following proposals:
- A review of working conditions faced by men and women to make their
careers compatible with child-raising.
- A study of how local communities can assist people with child-raising.
- To improve social welfare benefits to assist families raising children.
Most notable of the proposals is the idea of making businesses allow male
employees to take a minimum of 10 percent of statutory paid paternity leave
which they are entitled to, but rarely use (examined below). Other ideas
like reducing working hours or tax incentives for companies to encourage
them to allow workers to take their allowed child leave would seem like
plausible options worth considering. In addition, Prime Minister Koizumi has
also pledged to allocate funds for the construction of 50,000 new day-care
facilities (of which numbers are still woefully inadequate)12.
These factors alone, however, will not likely be enough. Furthermore, they
are not that far removed from previous attempts of the largely fruitless
original Angel Plan. There are a myriad of other contributing policy factors
that the government presently seems loathe to address.
Firstly, there is the incredible cost of simply being pregnant in Japan
(i.e. the economic factor mentioned earlier). Regular examinations during
pregnancy are not covered by health insurance since it is neither a sickness
nor an injury. The cost of such visits usually averages around 5000 yen per
time. Then there is the cost of delivery (around 300 - 400,000 yen) which,
although is refunded in part by insurance, is still an initial out-of-pocket
expense13. If delivery occurs at night or on a holiday, the cost can be much
greater. Following birth comes the cost of health care for infants. This is
free for children until the age of 3 in some prefectures, age 5 in others.
Naturally if you consider the price of schooling and university education,
the average family can realistically only afford one child, two with a
sacrifice14. Kojio claims that because of the increase in the overall cost of
having and raising children, the nation’s birth rate has fallen15.
Furthermore, the continuing uncertain economic climate with increasing
redundancies is a clear negative factor. Many say that they would like to
have more children but can’t afford to. Considering that it costs about 4.4
million yen on average to raise a child to age 6, the financial burden of
having children is enormous and an obvious deterrent16. Yet this financial
aspect – and the gap between desires and realities – seems to be overlooked
by the government. While child support is paid (5000 yen per month per child
for 1 or 2 children and 10,000 yen a month for nos. 3 on, dependent on
income) this barely covers the monthly nappy bill. Making medical care from
conception to 5 years completely free would seem like one way of starting to
encouraging more people to have children by defraying the cost.
Secondly there is the attitude of lawmakers to children and their health
that brings into question their true desire to see more people in Japan. In
particular here I am referring to issues of safety. Seventy-six percent of
those surveyed recently thought that Japan wasn’t a good place to give birth
and raise children17. While the greater impact and implications of the
Japanese government’s failure to ensure the safety of its citizens (and in
many cases blatantly contribute to their harm) will be examined in more
detail in a forthcoming paper, listing a few such issues here seems
- When research pertaining to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), its
probable causes, preventative actions, etc., became well documented overseas
this was not immediately made known to Japanese mothers since it was deemed
it didn’t apply to Japan’s circumstances.
- The dangers associated with shaking babies has only recently (2001) been
added to parent-child books in Japan.
- There are still presently no national standards for playground equipment
safety. A number of children have died in recent years due to accidents with
old or unsafe playground equipment. A recent survey revealed that
three-quarters of Japan’s playgrounds were potentially dangerous18.
- Child abuse has only recently been ‘discovered’ in Japan (Goodman, 2002a).
- Transplant operations are still banned for any person under the age of 15
(partly because they are less profitable under the present medical treatment
- Infertility treatment is often not covered by insurance and some
procedures, such as surrogate births, are not even approved yet (although
some have taken place clandestinely20).
Thirdly, and directly related to the above point, is the attitude of society
in general, and companies in particular, towards child-raising and
child-care leave. A child-care law enacted more than ten years ago is still
underutilized – especially by men. In 1999, for example, 56.4 percent of
working women took child-care leave, whereas only 0.42 percent of men did21.
It was also reported that the bigger the company, the lower the ratio of
employees taking leave tends to be22. The Ministry of Health, Labor and
Welfare is considering setting quotas for the number of male employees
required to take parental leave. This it hopes will help change the present
social and corporate climate which makes it difficult for men in particular
to make use of such provisions. Yet, given that fewer than 40% of fathers
have ever changed a nappy or put children to bed (White, 2002) and only 6%
of men say they feel comfortable taking child care leave23 this is a dubious
assumption. Social roles too, need to be re-examined and as the private
sector is wary of governmental meddling in personnel affairs, it’s doubtful
they will have any significant impact24.
If Japanese women are opting (or resigned) to have fewer children, then the
next obvious option is to try to maintain the population through opening the
nation’s doors to greater immigration. Furthermore, the situation Japan
faces is perhaps more urgent than one that can be fixed by encouraging
people to have more babies. Goto (2001), for example, argues that it is
already too late to try to increase fertility levels to offset the burden on
the working population. To be sure, Japan is presently struggling to emerge
from its recession with unemployment at a post-War record high. Given this
situation, talk about requiring more labourers may seem misplaced. While
some of the immediate issues pertaining to immigration may have been
deferred, they will not, however, disappear altogether. Further, as Tsuda
(2001) has argued, Japan’s immigrant labour population has become a stable
feature of industry which is relatively unaffected by economic recessions
and declines in production. What is more, greater immigration could in fact
help increase demand and innovation in the Japanese economy as well as lead
to a larger number of children.
A recent United Nations study estimates that, under certain conditions25, Japan may need to
bring in a massive 343,000 immigrants annually, until 2050, simply to
prevent its population from declining (or face an annual drop in GDP of 7%)26.
In order to prevent a decline in its working population (15-64 year-olds) in
the same period an average of 647,000 new foreign workers may be needed
annually27. This would mean that by 2050, thirty percent of Japan’s population
would be foreign immigrants or their descendents.
Again, the Japanese government is well aware of the acute situation the
labour force population issue presents. In the Justice Ministry’s ‘Basic
Plan for Immigration Control,’ released in March 2000, it mentioned – for
the first time – the government’s concerns over the nation’s aging and
declining population. This report stirred controversy too, over the
possibility of accepting foreign workers to assist in the nursing of elderly
people28. The impact of some labour shortfalls has already hit home. The
personnel shortage in Japan’s computer engineering and programming sector
alone has been estimated to be around 13,000. As a consequence, the
government announced in 1999 that it would recruit 30,000 skilled IT
engineers and researchers from overseas by 200529. Further, the former
Director General of the country’s Economic Planning Agency, Sakaiya Taichi,
has said that the sharp decline in the nation’s population sometime after
2007 will make it ‘inevitable that Japan will look for foreign workers to
make up the… shortfall.’30 Sakaiya added that the inflow of foreign workers
would provide the cultural stimulus needed to build a creativity-based
society in the future. This remark clearly implies that some of Japan’s
leaders, at least, not only believe that Japan’s society is lacking in
creativity but also that foreigners could provide a positive stimulus in
this regard31. Japan lags far behind other nations in terms of foreigners
employed. In 1999, fewer than 1% of workers were foreign, compared with 18%
in Switzerland or nearly 12% in the U.S.32
A Prime Ministerial Commission looking at Japan’s goals in the 21st Century
also acknowledges the requirement for foreign inputs when they discuss the
need to implement change thus:
[t]o respond positively to globalization and [to] maintain Japan’s vitality
in the twenty-first century… we cannot avoid the task of creating an
environment that will allow foreigners to live normally and comfortably in
There is clearly a sense of reluctance in this talk of international factors
dictating national policy. Expressions like ‘cannot avoid’ and ‘task’
indicate that Japan believes it is undertaking a course of action out of
necessity as opposed to having much will to do so. What is also revealing
about the above statement is that it appears to recognise that at present
the environment in Japan means foreigners are unable to live ‘normal’ and
‘comfortable’ lives. The report continues:
It would not be desirable… simply to throw open the gates and let foreigners
move in freely. First of all we should set up a more explicit immigration
and permanent residence system so as to encourage foreigners who can be
expected to contribute to the development of Japanese society to move in and
possibly take up permanent residence here. We should also consider
preferential treatment for foreigners who study or conduct research in Japan
– such as allowing them automatically to acquire permanent residence status
when they complete their academic work at a Japanese high school,
university, or graduate school.34
Likewise, another report issued by Japan’s Economic Council, recommended:
“we should actively consider aiming to become a vibrant socio-economy that
is open to the world by orderly accepting migrant labour from overseas
countries.”35 “It is important for Japan to introduce foreign workers in the
fields of management, research and technology” wrote the Ministry of
Economic Trade and Industry in its 2003 White Paper36. A similar message was
sent by the Ministry of Justice which called on Japanese to ‘aggressively
carry out the smooth acceptance’ of foreigners37. Japan’s Health, Labor and
Welfare Minister, Sakaguchi Chikara, added his voice of support too,
claiming Japan should accept more workers from other countries to cope with
the declining workforce38.
Thus, on the surface, the Japanese government appears pro migration in
principle and advocates increasing the number of foreigners in Japan. The
aforementioned report from the Prime Minister’s office even recognises that
Japan has not yet designed a ‘set of policies to deal with foreigners
covering such matters as legal status, living conditions, human rights and
housing assistance’39 and proclaims its positive intention to tackle these
However, an even more difficult task than trying to convince people to have
more children is perhaps trying to convince them that they should accept
more immigrants. This is a worldwide problem as evidenced by the recent
immigrant and refugee backlashes in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Given
traditional attitudes towards foreigners (as examined below), however, the
Japanese case is somewhat different.
Not all in the government have been supportive of such report findings
listed above, though. According to Atoh Makoto, the Deputy Director General
of the National Institute of Population Research, the UN’s aforementioned
proposal would be ‘impossible’ to implement because of suspicion by Japanese
of increased immigration40. Other critics say that if Japan formally decided
on the introduction of foreign labor, it would receive immigrants from
between 50 and 60 countries, and would be bound to become a multiracial
society just like the United States (Nishio, 1988), (implying that
multiracialism is thus a negative trend). Given the Japanese government’s
traditionally stern official stance towards foreign immigrants it certainly
seems that a massive shift in thinking would be necessary before anywhere
near the number suggested could be made welcome and the government’s
positive policies made to reach fruition.
To be sure, there are numerous negative repercussions for sender-states if
there is an increase in the migration of skilled workers to Japan (or other
developed states) and these are often overlooked in most public debate. For
example, recently the IMF called on Japan and Europe to accept more
immigrants so as to minimize the economic impact of their aging
population41. Yet, no mention was made of the negative impact such a skill
drain has on the sender nations. A case in point is the present debate over
the free trade agreement between Japan and the Philippines. While the
Philippine Government is itself striving to get Japan to agree to allow
Filipino health workers freer access to employment opportunities in Japan,
the number of health professionals (nurses in particular) in the Philippines
continues to decline as more and more head off to higher wages in Britain
and the United States42. It is this negative aspect of migration that is
hardly mentioned, yet is something that needs to be addressed. For the
Japanese government to blindly open its doors without providing the proper
support or ensuring its policies are not damaging developing nations would
be irresponsible and short-sighted. Again, much greater debate is required
so as to ensure that all parties are benefiting from migration to the
greatest extent possible. Mutually beneficial solutions can be found, I
believe, such as training being paid for by the Japanese Government, the
setting of quotas or the like.
Others opposed to immigration argue that a large influx of non-Japanese
immigrants would lead to a corruption of the nation’s work ethic as jobs
classified as the ‘three k’s’ (kitanai - dirty, kitsui – hard, and
dangerous) will be undertaken by the newcomers. While this sounds like a
positive idea, there is significant evidence to suggest that it is already
too late for this (Tsuda, 2001). Japan is home to a large population of
undocumented illegal overstayers (estimated to be anywhere from 250 –
500,000)43. These people provide a vital link in the nation’s labour chain,
one which can no longer be replaced by native workers. In spite of their
importance, these same people are, however, forced to exist in a precarious
legal limbo, denied basic rights and social security.
Japan manifestly needs an immigration policy which allows immigrants to come
to Japan to work, live and stay if they so desire. It does not yet seem to
have the will to implement one, however. Changing peoples’ perceptions is
perhaps the hardest task facing those who would promote internationalisation
in Japan. It remains a daunting and lengthy task, too. When respondents were
asked in a recent survey whether Japan should accept immigrants (as a part
of its international responsibilities) 17 percent replied yes, while 53
percent said only if all other alternatives have been exhausted44.
Consequently, it seems that contemporary Japanese society is caught between
the contradictory forces of ethnocentrism and internationalization
(Sugimoto, 2003). On the one hand there are those calling for a freer
immigration policy, with equal rights for all residents in Japan. On the
other hand, there are those opposed, who fear that any greater influx of
workers will threaten the imagined purity of the Japanese culture45. Until
this fundamental debate is settled, it is doubtful that immigration can be
seen as a saviour for Japan’s projected population problems.
Again, however, this is the simplistic dualistic argument that Japan’s (and
other such developed nation’s) leaders would have us believe. Some are
opposed to greater migration because of other more humanistic reasons such
as the aforementioned detrimental impact the plundering of skilled workers
has on developing nations. With adjustment, perhaps, the migration of
non-skilled workers could provide benefits for both sender and receiver
states. They would be able to do many of the jobs urgently required
(especially the 3K jobs and others as well after training) while not
depleting the skill base in developing countries but in fact enlarging it.
Such options require considerable debate and courage on the part of the
accepting nation which in turn requires open leadership and an accepting
society, neither of which, it could be said, Japan has at present, however.
The problems associated with increasing immigration have a significant
history in Japan. Despite trying to portray itself as a nation devoid of
migration history, it has in fact been an essential component of the
nation’s formation46. Japan’s historic
attitude towards immigration speaks volumes about the difficulty for future
prospects. In modern times, the country’s largest immigrant population has
come from the Korean Peninsula47.
After the Japan-Korea Treaty was signed in 1965 the 500,000 or so Koreans
who remained in Japan became ‘Special Permanent Residents,’ enabling them to
claim national health and welfare benefits but refusing them other such
rights as suffrage.
Post World War Two there have been two major policy changes affecting the
situation of immigrants. The first was the introduction of the Alien
Registration Law in 1952. This law was aimed at controlling all foreign
residents by making them carry resident identification cards at all times.
All residents over 16 years of age and residing for more than a year were
fingerprinted and photographed for these cards (the fingerprinting practice
was only abolished in 1999 after decades of protests from human rights
The second major change occurred in 1991 with a partial relaxation of the
nation’s immigration laws. Ostensibly this allowed more foreigners of
Japanese descent into Japan in order to take up nondescript jobs in
industries which were short-staffed yet whose jobs were unattractive to
Japanese (the aforementioned ‘three-k’s’). The underlying reason for this
was according to an official publication of the ruling Liberal Democratic
People opposed to the idea of introducing foreign laborers into Japan say
that such a move will cause the ethnic structure of our nearly racially
homogenous society to deteriorate. However, they will probably agree to the
idea of bringing in foreign nationals who, owing to their Japanese ancestry,
are thoroughly acquainted with Japanese customs.48
These ‘foreigners of Japanese descent’ (Nikkeijin) were afforded
preferential treatment which was justified by the fact that their presence
would ease the reunification of Japanese families divided by emigration and
that their ethnic ties would facilitate adjustment to and acceptance by
Japanese society (de Carvalho, 2000). The folly of this line of reasoning
was to become apparent in the following years. And despite this history, it
seems that the nation’s rulers have yet to learn from these early attempts
In spite of the government’s optimistic stance, the fact remained that the
prime reason for the influx of the Nikkeijin remained the same as the
majority of others to Japan; financial. Thus despite their physical
resemblance, that was where the similarities seemingly ended. While the
government began welcoming them (the number soared from a mere 3,961 in 1986
to around 220,844 by 1998) society was not so accommodating. Rather than
being easily accepted in Japan, they have in fact merely formed a new
Japan’s official hard-line attitude towards foreigners can be traced back as
far as 1899, when Imperial Edict No. 352 was issued prohibiting the
importation of foreign labour into Japan. (Laszlo, 2002). To this day, the
policy remains very much the same; accepting only skilled labour and
declining (officially at least) the rest. The exception is, however, the
government’s trainee system which acts ostensibly as a front to allowing the
controlled importation of unskilled labour50.
I do not intend to assert that Japan is necessarily any more discriminatory
than other developed nations. Japan’s approach to dealing with cases of
discrimination, however, is often seen wanting in terms of results and
appears ad hoc at best. Actions such as the employment of non-Japanese on
non-renewable, short-term contracts, the lack of provision for a law banning
racial discrimination, being denied registration on jyūminhyō family
registers, being denied access to certain jobs, suffrage, etc. all add-up to
a climate of ‘unwelcomeness.’51 Talented immigrants will not remain if they
are not allowed to remain in a capacity in which they can support themselves
and their families52. In situations where such immigrants have Japanese
spouses this amounts to nothing less than discrimination against Japan’s own
nationals as well. Increased immigration cannot be successful unless those
invited are afforded the exact same treatment as Japanese nationals. This,
unfortunately, is not yet the case in Japan which is unwilling to accept
that the forces of globalisation are such that one nation can no longer
easily pick and choose immigrants who best suit the host nation’s ethnic
From this brief discussion it is fair to say that Japan’s attitude towards
foreign immigrants has been one of exclusion, containment and control rather
than one that attempts to build a society in partnership. Until this
situation is drastically improved there is little hope of immigrants being
allowed (or willing) to make up even a few more percentage points of the
nation’s overall population. Thus, not only is the government’s rhetoric (as
described earlier) seen wanting in terms of concrete actions, it is highly
dubious as to whether society is ready or has been prepared for any
immediate change in the status quo. Consequently, there seems little hope of
non-Japanese supporting Japan’s population in the immediate future.
As mentioned, at present Japan is in the midst of a decade-long recession.
In the medium term this recession will delay serious debate on increased
immigration. Even if demand does grow, there is still the issue of where
Japan might seek its labour from. The total number of Brazilians of Japanese
descent is no more than around 1.3 million. While there are large numbers of
people of Japanese descent in many Asian nations, as long as the government
continues with its policy of offering residence only as far as descendant’s
grandchildren, this avenue will be quickly exhausted.
In any case, should the problems of an impending decline in population be
solved through immigration? Perhaps a smaller society may be a better one?
(It could be argued that in fact a smaller population may lead to an
increase in efficiency if focused in the right direction.) And what is to be
done with the burgeoning illegal immigrant population already here? These
are also questions the government needs to address and open public debate
on. One thing, though, is certain. If Japan wishes to maintain its economic
strength it needs to maintain its population, particularly its labour force.
The introduction of greater numbers of foreign immigrants can, if managed
properly, also lead to the reinvigoration of the culture and society and
provide a stimulus for greater achievement (surely something Japan’s economy
presently requires). Yet this cannot be achieved without adjustments.
And then there is the unanswerable question of will these people want to
stay anyway? According to some research, a high percentage of the minute
number of refugees actually granted asylum in Japan do not wish to remain
long-term citing discrimination and rigid rules (Itoh, 2000). In order to
keep new immigrants in Japan there are a number of aspects of the nation’s
recent approach that need to be changed. Not least of which is a lingering
discriminatory attitude towards resident foreigners.
Japan’s population will, undoubtedly, faithfully follow the predicted
downward slide given the government’s lack of decisive action on either of
the two possible options briefly examined in this paper. The former (that of
effecting policies aimed at increasing the birth-rate) seems the most
probable possibility, yet this alone will not be enough. There are also,
arguably, numerous benefits to be gained by a nation through the latter of
the options mentioned (increased movement of people by immigration),
however, this requires debate and changes that society has probably not been
prepared for yet.
What conclusions can we draw from the government’s responses to these
issues? Firstly, they have been slow to act as has so often been the case in
the past where reaction and not action has been the norm. These issues are
still being deferred in a way similar to the non-performing loan fiasco. The
time has come for the rhetoric from the government, which has been found
wanting in terms of concrete details, to be backed up by solid plans with
quantifiably attainable goals. Japan’s leaders are seemingly disinterested
in the health and safety of their youth and the need to seriously address
issues related to the rights of non-Japanese immigrants. Japan’s children
and young people need care and protection as do the nation’s new immigrants.
Thus there are numerous similarities here to be seen between these two
groups. Secondly, little – if any – long term planning has been made.
Serious public debate needs to be opened if the government is to either
create an atmosphere where both women and men can work and raise children
together, and/or non-Japanese can be welcomed and live ‘normally and
These solutions alone, however, will only temporarily alleviate the
situation. Long term debate needs to be initiated as to how to best attain
economic security while not damaging (and preferably assisting) developing
nations as well. Now is a prime time for Japan to show leadership and
support to its developing neighbours. If Japan wishes to ensure its future
prosperity, sooner, not later, critical discussion on these issues will be
essential. Time is, however, fast running out.
United Nations Population Division (2000).
The Daily Yomiuri, ‘Birthrate hits record low 1.29 in 2003.’ 11 June
2004, 1. There is, however, much regional variation. For example, in Tokyo
the rate is as low as 0.9987. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry
predicts the birthrate will bottom out at 1.306 in 2007. However, their
estimate for 2003 was 1.32 which has already been surpassed. In terms of
comparison, it is useful to note that demographers cite 2.1 as the required
fertility rate to maintain a constant population.
While it could be argued that there is ample room in Japan’s system for
improvements to increase productivity, the IMF suggests that of all the
industrialized nations, Japan’s economy will be the most severely affected.
See: The Daily Yomiuri, “IMF: Aging society to cut Japan growth,” 24
September 2004, p. 8.
Kwon (1999, cited in Goodman, Family and Social Policy in Japan, 14) has
pointed out, Japanese tend to provide less financial support to their
parents than is the case in other Asian nations. In Korea, for example,
children provided 44.3% of their total income and
Taiwanese 53.2% to their parents in 1994 whereas in Japan in 1988 (before
the onset of the present recession) the figure was only 9% reflecting heavy
reliance on government pensions.
Iyotani (1991) cited in Cornelius et al., Controlling Immigration,
Inokuma Ritsuko, ‘Local governments struggle to cope,’ The Daily Yomiuri,
5 November 2003, 3.
average age is 28.5 for men and 26.8 for women. See The Daily Yomiuri,
“Survey: Couples planning to have record few children,” 29 May 2003, p. 2.
This is reflected in fertility rate figures again, which were 0.06 for
working women compared with 2.96 for non-working women in the 1990s. See
Goodman, Family and Social Policy in Japan, 14.
Such as employment discrimination, the expectation that women will quit
after marriage and so forth. See, for example, Bishop, “The Diversification
of Employment...”, 93-109; White, Perfectly Japanese, 122-153; or Sugimoto,
Introduction to Japanese Society, 153-165.
10 The Daily Yomiuri, ‘Poll: Many people want 3 children,’ 11 March 2003, 3.
See Ogawa (2001).
Wada Ritsuko, an economist at the Nomura Research Institute, claims that
this number is ‘far from enough.’ She calculates that the government needs
to make space for an extra million children by 2012 if enough mothers are to
be given the chance to work. See Grudgings Stewart, “Birthrate crisis finds
Japan on its knees,” The Japan Times, 19 December 2002, 3.
It must be noted that some prefectures do offer slightly more than others.
a recent survey, 51.6% of respondents cited the cost of paying for education
as a reason for having less children. The same survey revealed 45% would
like 3 children if they could afford to. The Daily Yomiuri, ‘Poll: Many
people want 3 children,’ 11 March 2003, 3.
15 Asahi Shimbun, “Futarime ni bureki,” 1 June 2003, p. 7.
“Cost of raising children to age 6 about 4.4 million,” The Daily Yomiuri, 3
April 2003, p. 3. Seventy-five percent of respondents to a survey in Japan
said the top reason for the falling birthrate was the economic burden
involved. See: The Daily Yomiuri, “Singles in Japan, S. Korea say kids cost
too much,” 3 July 2004, p. 2.
17 The Daily Yomiuri, “Survey: Couples planning to have record few children,”
29 May 2003, p. 2.
18 The Daily Yomiuri, “Poll: 75% of playgrounds have defects,” 10 Nov 2003, p.
19 The Daily Yomiuri, “ERs for kids need shot in arm,” (Editorial), 6 November
20 The Daily Yomiuri, “2nd surrogate birth last year,” 7 March 2003, 2.
21 The Daily Yomiuri, “Men to be encouraged to take child-care leave,” 18 July
23 The Daily Yomiuri, “Survey: Couples planning to have record few children,”
29 May 2003, p. 2.
Inokuma Ritsuko and Sakakibara Noriko, ‘Fumbling effort to halt falling
birthrate,’ The Daily Yomiuri, 5 November 2002, 3.
The study’s estimated figures are based on 1995 fertility levels and assume
zero net migration after 1995. Such an assumption is, as Laszlo (2002) has
pointed out, natural considering that the number of foreign nationals
legally present in Japan presently number only 1.6 million, or a fraction
over 1% of the population.
United Nations Population Division, Replacement Migration, 2.
Other sources put the annual figure at 609,000. See
Migration News (2000), 7
(6). It must be remembered that these are only
estimates and such labour projections are vulnerable to changes in economic
cycles, technology and the like. For example, while it was reported back in
1988 by the National Committee for Developing Economic Foundations for the
21st Century that by 2000 Japan would have a labour shortage of 2.7 million
workers, in fact in the first half of 2000, roughly that same amount were
unemployed. See Komai, Migrant Workers in Japan, 213. It should also be
noted that the financial burden involved with increasing migration would
exceed 1 trillion yen. See Koshiro, Does Japan Need Migrants?, 168.
According to estimates, demand for home-helpers and nursing care workers
would increase from the current 520,000 to 1 million by 2005. See Asahi
Evening News, “Immigration policy creates headaches for ministry,” 12
January 2001, 7, and Toriyama Tadashi, “Discussion vital over plans to
accept nursing-care workers from overseas,” The Daily Yomiuri, 26 April
2000, 6. The Ministry of Health and Welfare was strongly opposed to this
suggestion as it argued it contravened Japan’s policy of not admitting
unskilled foreign workers to do menial tasks (most nursing-care-related jobs
are considered unskilled).
KajimotoTetsushi, “Foreign workforce movin’ on up,” The Japan Times, 1
January 2001, 3.
30 The Daily Yomiuri, “More foreign labor expected,” 6 August 1999, 8.
31 There was a predominantly
negative reaction to Sakaiya’s and others’ comments and, consequently this
debate was left out of the 1999 Ministry of International Trade and
Industry’s Economic White Paper.
32 The Japan Times, “Japan
needs foreign workers to achieve economic growth: METI”, 2 July 2003, p. 11.
33 Prime Minister’s Commission
on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century, The Frontier Within, 13.
34 Prime Minister’s Commission
on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century, The Frontier Within, 13 [Italics are
35 Japan Economic Council,
Fundamental Concept Committee, 3.
36 The Japan Times, “Japan
needs foreign workers to achieve economic growth: METI”, 2 July 2003, p. 11.
Interestingly, these are precisely the areas where Japan has traditionally
stressed its strength.
37 French Howard, “Still Wary
of Outsiders, Japan Expects Immigration Boom,” The New York Times, 14 March
Accessed 4 March 2003.
39 Prime Minister’s Commission
on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century, The Frontier Within, Chapter One.
40 Cornell Andrew, “Land of the
Rising Sun has Racist Horizon,” Australian Financial Review, 1 May
41 The Daily Yomiuri, “IMF:
Aging society to cut Japan growth,” 24 September 2004, p. 8. The IMF
stresses, however, that an increase in immigration is still only a
42 One real concern is that the
Philippines may lose nurses at a faster rate than it can train new ones.
Workers overseas can earn twenty times as much as in the Philippines. The
Japan Times, “FTA could exacerbate Philippine nurse drain,” 22 September
43 According to official
government figures, approximately 15% of the foreign population in Japan is
illegal. Based on January 2000 figures this equates to 251,697 people
(Japanese Ministry of Justice, 1999). See Iwao, Crime by Illegal Aliens,
41-3; or Watado, Jichitai seisaku no tenkai for other estimates.
44 The Daily Yomiuri, “New
blood to rejuvenate an aging Japan,” 5 October 2001, 7. See also Asahi
Evening News, “More Japanese willing to accept foreign residents – with
conditions,” 10 November 2000, 3, which puts the number of ‘yes’ replies at
18% (with restrictions on the number and their ages), ‘no’ at 19%, and 57%
who replied the issue should be considered a part of future policy.
45 See, for example, Nishio,
46 See Miyajima, “Immigration
and the Redefinition of Citizenship”; Weiner, ed., Japan’s Minorities.
47 For more on this see: Suh
(1989), who divides the movement of Koreans into Japan until the end of WWII
into four periods.
48 Laszlo, Aging and
Immigration, 12 [Italics are mine].
49 For more on the issue of a
new minority see: Linger, No One Home.
50 The Japan Times, “Foreign
trainees under exploitation,” 7 April 2000, 3. See also The Japan Times,
“Labor program accused of profiteering,” 22 February 2001, 3, and Ishida Kakuya, ‘”Training program going awry,”
The Daily Yomiuri, 1 March 2002, 1,
51 See, for example, Chapple,
Japan’s Policy of Internationalisation, 154-213.
52 See: Tsukahara, Mami “Japan
struggles to attract professionals from abroad,” The Daily Yomiuri, 22
November 2003, p. 13
Bishop, B. 2000. “The Diversification of Employment and Women’s
Work in Japan.” In Befu Harumi et al. Globalization and Social Change in
Contemporary Japan. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.
Chapple, J. 2003. Japan’s Policy of Internationalisation:
Prospects for a Multicultural Society. PhD. Thesis. Victoria University
of Wellington, New Zealand.
Cornelius, W. 1994. “The Illusion of Immigration Control.” In
Cornelius, W., Martin P. and Hollifield J. eds. Controlling Immigration:
A Global Perspective. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
de Carvalho, D. 2000. “The Making of a Minority in Japan.” The
Japan Foundation Newsletter 27 (3-4) (March): 19-21.
Goodman, R. 2002. “Anthropology, policy and the study of Japan.”
In Family and Social Policy in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University
____ 2002a. “Child abuse in Japan: ‘discovery’ and the development of
policy.” In Family and Social Policy in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge
Goto, J. 2001. “Aging society and the labor market in Japan:
should the fertility rate Be raised now – No!.” Japan Labor Bulletin,
Harada, S. 1998. “The aging society, the family, and social
policy.” In Banno Junji, ed., The Political Economy of Japanese Society.
Vol. 2: Internationalisation and Domestic Issues. Oxford: Oxford
Itoh, M. 2000. The Globalization of Japan: Japanese Sakoku
Mentality and U.S. Efforts to Open Japan. London: MacMillan Press.
Iwao, S. 1998. “Crime By Illegal Aliens.” Japan Echo.
Japan Economic Council. 1999. Fundamental Concept Committee and
Planning Committee Considerations for the Japanese Socioeconomy in the 21st
Century. April 13.
Jolivet, M. 1997. Japan the Childless Society? New York:
Kawamoto, S. ed. 2001. Ronso: Shoshika Nippon. (Japan: The
Shrinking). Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha.
Komai, H. 1995. Migrant Workers in Japan. New York: K.
Koshiro, K. 1998. “Does Japan need immigrants?” In Weiner M. and
Hanami T., eds. Temporary Workers or Future Citizens? Bassington:
Laszlo, T. 2002. “Aging and Immigration.” The Journal.
Linger, D. 2001. No One Home. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
Miyajima, T. 1997. “Immigration and the Redefinition of
Citizenship in Japan: “One People – One Nation” in Question.” In Oommen T.
K., ed., Citizenship and National Identity: From Colonialism to Globalism.
New Delhi and Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Nishio, K. 1988. Senryakuteki ‘sakoku-ron’ [The Strategic
‘Closed Country Debate’]. Tokyo: Kodansha.
____ 1992. “Some Believe Accepting Foreign Workers Could Lead to
Corruption.” Japan Times Weekly – International Edition. March 5-11.
Prime Minister’s Commission on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century.
2000. The Frontier Within: Individual Empowerment and Better Governance
in the New Millennium. (January).
Roberts, G. 2002. “Pining hopes on angels: reflections from an
aging Japan’s urban Landscape.” In Goodman, Roger. Family and Social
Policy in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sugimoto, Y. 2003. An Introduction to Japanese Society
(Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Suh, K. 1989. Kōminka seisaku kara shimon ōnatsu made [From
Public Policies to Fingerprinting]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Tsuda, T. 2001.
Reluctant Hosts: The Future of Japan as a
Country of Immigration. Migration Dialogue.
United Nations Population Division. 2000. Replacement
Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? New
York: United Nations.
Watado, I. ed. 1996. Jichitai seisaku no tenkai to NGO [The
Development of Local Government Policies and NGOs]. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.
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Homogeneity. New York: Routledge.
White, M. 2002. Perfectly Japanese. Los Angeles: University
of California Press.
About the author
Julian Chapple received his BA and a Diploma in International
Business Communication from
University. His Masters
degree and PhD were obtained from
Victoria University of
Wellington (both in New Zealand). His PhD examined Japan’s policy of Internationalisation and the prospects of Japanese society becoming more
multicultural. He has spent 10 years living, working and studying in Japan
in various positions. Presently he is a lecturer at
Kyoto Sangyo University
in Kyoto, Japan.
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