electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 5 in 2004
First published in ejcjs on 18 October 2004

Search the Web Search ejcjs

How to contribute to ejcjs

The Dilemma Posed by Japan's Population Decline


Julian Chapple

Kyoto Sangyo University

e-mail the Author

About the Author


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 placed.

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 falling birth-rate.

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 pertinent:

  • 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 remuneration system19).
  • 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.

Increasing Immigration

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 this country.33

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 issues.

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 kiken - 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.

Historical Background

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 groups).

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 Party that:

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 at immigration.

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 minority49.

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 make-up.

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 comfortably.’

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.


1 United Nations Population Division (2000).
2 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.
3 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.
4 As 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.
5 Iyotani (1991) cited in Cornelius et al., Controlling Immigration, 378.
6 See Inokuma Ritsuko, ‘Local governments struggle to cope,’ The Daily Yomiuri, 5 November 2003, 3.
7 The 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.
8 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.
9 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, An Introduction to Japanese Society, 153-165.
10 The Daily Yomiuri, ‘Poll: Many people want 3 children,’ 11 March 2003, 3.
11 See Ogawa (2001).
12 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.
13 It must be noted that some prefectures do offer slightly more than others.
14 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.
16 “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. 2.
19 The Daily Yomiuri, “ERs for kids need shot in arm,” (Editorial), 6 November 2002, 8.
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 2002, 3.
22 Ibid.
23 The Daily Yomiuri, “Survey: Couples planning to have record few children,” 29 May 2003, p. 2.
24 Inokuma Ritsuko and Sakakibara Noriko, ‘Fumbling effort to halt falling birthrate,’ The Daily Yomiuri, 5 November 2002, 3.
25 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.
26 United Nations Population Division, Replacement Migration, 2.
27 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.
28 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).
29 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 mine].
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 2000.
38 Japan Today. 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 2000.
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 ‘temporary’ remedy.
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 2004, 12.
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, Senryakuteki sakoku-ron.
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, 7.
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 Press.

____ 2002a. “Child abuse in Japan: ‘discovery’ and the development of policy.” In Family and Social Policy in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goto, J. 2001. “Aging society and the labor market in Japan: should the fertility rate Be raised now – No!.” Japan Labor Bulletin, 40 (9).

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 University Press.

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. February, 41-43.

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: Routledge.

Kawamoto, S. ed. 2001. Ronso: Shoshika Nippon. (Japan: The Shrinking). Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha.

Komai, H. 1995. Migrant Workers in Japan. New York: K. Paul.

Koshiro, K. 1998. “Does Japan need immigrants?” In Weiner M. and Hanami T., eds. Temporary Workers or Future Citizens? Bassington: Macmillan.

Laszlo, T. 2002. “Aging and Immigration.” The Journal. July, 12-14.

Linger, D. 2001. No One Home. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

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.

Weiner, M. ed. 1997. Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of 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 Massey 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.

e-mail the Author

Back to Top

Copyright: Julian Chapple
This page was first created on 18 October 2004. It was last modified on 30 January 2006.

ejcjs uses Dublin Core metadata in all of its pages. Click here to enter the Dublin Core metadata website The Directory of Open Access Journals includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive online databases of open access journals in the world. Click here to enter the DOAJ website.

The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences includes ejcjs within one of the most comprehensive databases of social science research worldwide. Click here to enter the IBSS website

The electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies is permanently preserved at research libraries worldwide by the LOCKSS electronic data storage system. Click here to be taken to the LOCKSS homepage.

This website is best viewed with a screen resolution of 1024x768 pixels and using Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.
No modifications have been made to the main text of this page since it was first posted on
If you have any suggestions for improving or adding to this page or this site then please e-mail your suggestions to the editor.
If you have any difficulties with this website then please send an e-mail to the webmaster.





Search Now:
Amazon Logo
Search Now: