Japan has historically been wary of immigration, introducing foreign worker schemes to avoid it.  The Japan Times has just published a five part series discussing the problems caused by the country’s low birth rate and shrinking, ageing population, evidencing increasing concern for the country’s plight.  

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set a target to raise the fertility rate to 1.8 (from 1.42 in 2014) last September.  The government’s overall goal is to maintain the population at 100 million in 2060 — still signficantly smaller than the 126.88 million people who live in Japan today.  If the fertility rate doesn’t increase, Japan’s population will drop to about 80 million by 2065 and 40 million by 2115.  In other words, all things remaining the same, Japan will have lost over two thirds of its population in a hundred years time.  This shift will cause increasingly significant labour shortages and a decline in its standard of living in the coming years. 

The question of immigration has once again been raised in the wake of such alarming demographic forecasts.  In February 2014, the Cabinet Office forecast that Japan will only be able to maintain a population of more than 100 million if it accepts 200,000 immigrants annually from 2015 and the total fertility rate recovers to 2.07 by 2030.  However, to help meet the shortfall between this number and the numbers of immigrants Japan’s government is willing to accept, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is instead planning to expand the foreign trainee program to solve labour shortages. 

The benefits of accepting further immigrants are clear.  It would prop up a dwindling workforce and help to change the poor working conditions of foreign workers in Japan who often live as de facto immigrants.  Hiring foreign trainees, who are expected to go back home after a few years, discourages employers from improving their working conditions.

According to demographer researcher, Eriko Suzuki, three “barriers” need to be removed to make increased immigration work in Japan: a “systemic barrier” that hinders immigrants from receiving the same social services as Japanese, a “sentimental barrier” — prejudice against foreign nationals as typified in hate speech, and the “language barrier” that needs to be addressed to improve the lives of immigrant families.  She thinks that measures should be taken soon before the economic gap between Japan and some immigrants’ home countries narrows and it becomes harder to attract immigrants to Japan.  

However, Yoichi Kaneko, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, holds a different view, commenting that he can’t imagine what Japan would be like if it accepted more immigrants, that it has not been openly done to date, and that Japan lacks knowledge on how to make the country livable for both Japanese and foreign residents. 

Kaneko also believes immigrants could bring about a large financial and social burden on Japan. A former economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Kaneko said the most active advocate of welcoming immigrants was the corporate world, which wants to use foreign workers on low wages. He thinks this overlooked the broader costs of housing immigrants, such as education and health care. Rather than relying on immigrants, Kaneko considers that Japan should overcome labour shortages by developing “labour-saving technologies” that allow people to work with less manpower.  He offers the example of nursing robots or wearable robotics that can be developed to reduce the burden on caregivers who perform such tasks as lifting people up, and the technology can then also be exported to other countries.  Kaneko also believes that Japan should continue efforts to attract more foreign visitors, such as Chinese on their bakugai shopping spree, to prop up consumption. 

Further, Kaneko believes the foreign trainee program can continue to help both worker source countries looking to improve their industries and Japan fill labour shortages if done better.  He also agrees that Japan’s international reputation will be seriously damaged if the current situation continues, with many trainees being confined to dirty rooms and forced to work at below minimum wage and that human rights need to be better respected.

While Kaneko’s ideas might help the economy, they are not going to assist with falling birth rates and the shrinking population of Japanese people.  What will happen long term to Japanese culture and identity?  To a large extent, it is only with the nurturing of ones own children brought up with the values we hold dear that existing cultures are advanced.  With young Japanese woman continuing to shy away from marriage and family, the immigration question will continue to be debated.  Japan’s latest census figures are due to be released next month.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...