Can Immigration Solve Japan's Population Problem?

June 7, 2016Japanby East Asia Forum

Japan could look to immigration to help with the demographic crunch.

Japan is experiencing a serious demographic crunch. About 27 percent of the Japanese population is over the age of 65 and there are 1.4 million fewer people today than there were in 2007, when the total population peaked at 128 million. Prospects for the future do not look good either.

By 2037, those aged 65 and older will make up 38 percent of the total population and the country will likely have lost another 18 million people. The working-age population is predicted to plummet to 44 million by 2037, nearly half of its size in 2007. These demographic changes will undoubtedly have far-reaching social and economic consequences for the country.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a joint meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Industrial Competitiveness Council at the prime minister's in Tokyo on 2 June 2016. The government endorsed a plan the same day to enhance social security measures aimed at tackling Japan's aging population, amid uncertainty over funding resources following the delay of a planned sales tax hike.

As Japan’s population ages, commentators have suggested increasing immigration as a way to address the country’s shrinking workforce. The UN estimates that Japan would need to receive 17 million immigrants between 2005 and 2050 (an average of 381,000 immigrants a year) for it to maintain its population level at 127 million.

If it wants to maintain its working-age population at the 1995 level, this number would need to increase to 33.5 million immigrants between 2005 and 2050 (an average of 609,000 immigrants a year). What is the likelihood of the Japanese government revising its immigration policy this dramatically?

Although Japanese policymakers, including the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have expressed deep concerns about Japan’s ageing and declining population, there is little evidence that there will be significant immigration policy changes in the near future.

The Ministry of Justice, the sole ministry with jurisdiction over immigration policy, has been convening ‘consultation meetings’ with stakeholder representatives and experts to discuss immigration policy reform since 2000. However, at the end of the last round of consultation meetings in 2015, the committee agreed only to modest policy reforms to alleviate workforce decline and promote economic growth.

The proposed changes mainly focus on expanding temporary foreign worker programs to allow more semi- and low-skilled workers to enter the country on temporary work visas. The government also plans to expand worker trainee programs and to actively recruit foreign students to work in social care services, a sector that is experiencing a serious labour shortage.

Japan has also begun to increase its intake of highly skilled ‘immigrants’ using Canada and Australia’s point system model since 2012. By the end of 2015, about 1500 skilled workers had entered Japan through this system.

However, at this rate, the prospect of replacing Japan’s workforce via immigration seems utterly dismal. Opening the country to immigration is clearly challenging for Japan. The country is simply not ready to accept immigration as a solution to its population problems. To the contrary, our research shows that many Japanese consider immigrants more as a potential problem than as a solution.

Japanese public opinion polls consistently show that at least half the population is opposed to the increasing presence of foreigners in their country. Public sentiment towards foreigners is most negative in rural Japan, where population ageing and depopulation are most severe, and where the need for immigration is the greatest.

When it comes to immigration policies, public sentiments tend to simply trump economics. Although immigration policy is often framed in terms of labour supply and demand, at heart it is about people’s ideas about nationhood. What we believe and imagine our country to be about shapes national immigration policy profoundly.

While economic imperatives are an important driver of immigration, ultimately it is our sense of national identity that determines whether we bring in more immigrants, in what form they should come into the country and where they should come from. Japanese collective imaginaries about their country as a racially, ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation make the intake of immigrants both threatening and unimaginable.

A lack of exposure to and interaction with ‘foreigners’ also dampens people’s willingness to accept immigrants. This may be a reason why rural Japanese are less willing to accept immigrants and more apprehensive about foreigners.

One study I conducted found that people in rural Japan are more likely to accept immigrants if they know somebody from another country or if they have interacted with foreign workers. In other words, being in contact with foreigners encourages Japanese people to consider the possibility of increased immigration more favourably.

So what can be done to change negative attitudes towards immigrants? One way may be through further internationalisation: encouraging more people to travel, study and work abroad, and facilitating cultural, economic and work exchanges.

Another way might be to actively reimagine and rescript Japan as a global nation, highlighting its capacity to adapt to modern global contexts, just as it did during the Meiji era. Either way, a solution to Japan’s demographic crisis will take time. In the meantime, the prospects for significant changes in immigration policy remain extremely low.

Japan and its immigration policies are growing old is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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