As regular readers of this blog will know well, Japan is a country with a shrinking population. Due to growing numbers of deaths and declining numbers of births, Japan’s population is shrinking at a rate of over 400,000 people per year. The Japanese government is worried about this of course and is looking at ways to reverse this population decline. One of these potential ways is to import people from overseas: immigration is the way that many western European countries are keeping their populations steady/growing.

The trouble with throwing open Japan’s doors to large numbers of immigrants is that there is no history of such a practice in Japan: the political and social barriers to large-scale immigration are high. Some of these barriers can be seen in this story from the Japan Times.  Osaka is probably the most cosmopolitan part of Japan. Foreign nationals account for 22 per cent of the population in it Ikuno Ward and 13 per cent of its Naniwa Ward. Nishinari Ward is planning to build a Chinatown. If Tokyo’s central 23 wards are not counted together, then Osaka ranks No.1 in Japan in terms of its total foreign population, with more than 130,000 foreign nationals. Yokohama comes in at second with 100,000. Due to growing numbers of Asians, particularly Chinese, Osaka is set to be home to about 1.5 million foreign nationals in 2040. (If this projection turns out to be true, then that will be about 20 per cent of the entire city’s population).

But this growth in foreign nationals (mainly ethnic Chinese whose numbers have overtaken Koreans in recent years as Japan’s largest ethnic minority) has not been unproblematic in Osaka. There has been a growth in illegal “minpaku”, or residence offering overnight lodgings, which deal directly with clientele in Chinese or Korean. For example, Chinese massage parlours would see a queue of people lining up with luggage at 9pm to sleep on massage tables with the massage cubicle curtains drawn: an ersatz cubicle hotel.

At the same time, existing immigration laws are being applied inconsistently depending on whether the police dealing with the matter are tolerant of opening Japan up to the world or not. A few days ago the Hyogo Prefectural Police arrested the president and another staff member of a dispatch company. The two men arrested were both Chinese nationals and were charged with dispatching several Vietnamese lacking legal entry status to work at an electronics company. The trouble with these arrests was that the president (and the company that he was working for) had been cooperating with the Japanese authorities and had helped the Police arrest 31 illgeal workers. The word had either not filtered down to Hyogo Prefectural Police, or someone had chosen not to listen to the word filtering down. But it says something about the ingrained nature of the opposition to increased immigration in Japan, and how the current laws and organisations are little suited to coping with hundreds of thousands of migrants each and every year. Because, at the moment, hundreds of thousands is at the lower end of the scale required to keep Japan’s population from declining further.

Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...