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Will Japan be a country that welcomes all?

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

“A nation of immigrants.” Japan? The leading proponent of that vision has been Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, current executive director of the private think tank he founded in 2007, the Japan Immigration Policy Institute.

His was long a voice in the wilderness as he called on Japan to welcome 10 million immigrants by 2050. In his writing, most recently a 2012 book titled “Jinko Hokai to Imin Kakumei” (“Population Breakdown and the Immigrant Revolution”), his irrepressible enthusiasm comes through in a partiality for words like “utopia” and “panacea.” The problems his “revolution” would address are glaring. No nation, let alone an economic superpower, has ever faced population aging and population decline at anything like Japan’s current pace. An influx of immigrants would repopulate, rejuvenate and globalize a naturally inward-looking country grown of late lethargic, complacent and old.

The trouble is, Japan is shy. Foreign faces, foreign languages, foreign ways make it nervous, and Sakanaka’s call has generally been dismissed as quixotic.

Then in February, the government’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy reportedly began discussing a plan to admit 200,000 foreigners a year. Even if still a mere talking point, it has never been even that before, this high up in official ranks. Is “a nation of immigrants” on the horizon?

The monthly Sapio, in its June edition, takes up the issue at some length. Is it happening? Should it happen? If so, at what pace, on what terms? If not, what are the alternatives?

To take the last question first, the most obvious alternative is a smaller, less competitive, less frenetic Japan, seen not as an admission of defeat but as the sensible pursuit of the good life. Arguing the case for Sapio is economic journalist Takuro Morinaga, who notes that in the 1920s Japan’s population was half what is now without anyone losing sleep about underpopulation. Let depopulation take its course, he urges. Fewer people will mean fewer crowds, less pressure, more leisure. More originality too, maybe, as Japan withdraws from the competition-driven globalized rat race and turns inward in the best sense of the word, concentrating on those idiosyncratic creations whose worldwide appeal spans the modern age, from 19th-century Japanese art to 21st-century kawaii (cute) culture. Let Japan, says Morinaga, “be a nation of 100 million artists” — or even 87 million, since that is what the population is projected to fall to by 2060, down from a 2005 peak of 127.8 million and 126.98 million today.

Taking a sterner line is opposition Diet representative and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, derided and extolled as a leading spokesman for the arch-conservative and xenophobic side of the Japanese character who here, however, surprises, declaring himself an eager supporter of drastically increased immigration. “Cute,” one senses, is not for him. “Population is strength,” he tells Sapio. “If our population continues to decline like this, inevitably our national strength will decline. I’ve been saying for more than 10 years that we need immigrants.” He debunks a shibboleth dear to the right, that the Japanese are “one race.” “That’s a mistaken perception,” he says, and goes on to trace Japan’s ethnic roots all over Asia and Oceania.

Journalist Yoshiko Sakurai is another prominent member of the patriotic intelligentsia who claims long-standing recognition of the need for immigrants — though she does confess to a certain wariness. Look at the U.S., she writes in her contribution to Sapio’s package. Here is a country that, though “a nation of immigrants,” having been founded by immigrants, nonetheless remained until very recently predominantly WASP (white Anglo-Saxon protestant), with all the virtues she says that implies: self-reliance, freedom, respect for human rights and a confidence in those same values that made the U.S. their global champion (for better and for worse, a critic might add). Immigration en masse, some of it illegal, altered the national character, Sakurai writes, diluting the native idealism with coarser, more material concerns closer to home, an evolution reflected in President Barack Obama’s declaration last September, with reference to the carnage in Syria, that “America is not the world’s policeman.”

Japan too has a distinct national character, Sakurai asserts, and though very different from America’s, it too might be in danger of dilution by uncontrolled immigration. Japan’s native virtues, she writes, are “kindness, sympathy, generosity and virtue,” rooted in, she says, the religious and cultural institution of a royal family dating back (mythologically if not historically) to the nation’s misty beginnings. Notorious outbursts of anti-Korean “hate speech” last fall, she says, disgrace those virtues and show how far Japan has already fallen, even without immigration, modern life itself perhaps being the culprit. So immigration by all means, she says — “providing immigrants obey the rules of, and assimilate into, Japanese society.” Otherwise, “Japan could cease to be Japan.”

Back and forth go the arguments — philosophical, economic and street-level, the latter including concerns about things such as noise, scofflawry and an uncomfortable feeling, expressed by some in neighborhoods where foreigners congregate, of being an outsider in your own country. Recently Toyo Keizai magazine noted a mismatch between jobs going begging, mainly in and around the construction field, and jobs Japanese job-seekers tend to want — mostly office jobs. Perhaps immigrant workers could fill the gap? Bad idea, countered Shukan Economist. Immigration may solve some problems, but only to cause others — the education of foreign children, the possible welfare needs of foreign parents, the policing of unassimilated foreign communities — for which Japan is ill equipped. Better, says Shukan Economist, to mobilize women and willing retirees. Besides, it adds, Japan’s Asian neighbors face their own demographic problems. Can Japan afford to grow dependent on other countries’ surplus labor?

In a 2005 book titled “Nyukan Senki” (“Immigration Battle Diary”), Sakanaka imagined Japan circa 2050, fully evolved into an “immigrant nation,” more at ease in its cosmopolitanism than even the U.S. “melting pot” is today. Immigrants comprise 20 percent of Japan’s 120 million population. Filipinos staff the nursing homes, Indians and Chinese the IT industry and Southeast Asians the currently moribund agricultural sector. Harmony reigns, intermarriage flourishes — eventually the very idea of race fades from human consciousness as bloodlines fuse and surviving racial characteristics cease to matter.

Is that Japan’s future? Or should the last word go to a skeptical German official quoted by Morinaga in his Sapio article: “Germany had so many problems (with Turkish guest workers brought in during the 1960s to relieve a labor shortage). Why would Japan want to go that route?”

  • Mike Wyckoff

    To answer the title, my mind says it needs to be, while my heart says I hope to hell not!

  • http://www.sunsetreflector.blogspot.com WufanGohan

    Japan needs to understand that globalization is an inescapable fact. And it will.

  • Mike Partlow

    Japan’s record on refugees is really all you need to look at before deciding to move there. At this stage, they just going ham.

    • AlphaOS

      Well, about Japan, the economy comprises largely on the service and manufacturing sectors. Although it’s lack in Agricultural and Material uses is contributed by other nations.
      Japan immigration laws are quite easy to follow, but people usually don’t choose immigration, rather they tend to come as tourists, when feeling home-sick they leave.
      Japan’s largest sectors comprises of Anime Industry, Car Industry, Medical Technology, robotics and automations and Education (although can’t beat UK’s or Europe’s educational quality) and lastly to a lesser extent film industry.
      Japan’s national debt is total of $94,000 per capita. Japan’s GDP per capita ranges from $30 – $40 (double the times of China’s earnable ratio).
      Japan’s rising prices have largely to do with import prices and large amount of materials that are imported for the product, hence, the huge price for the final product.
      Japan’s suicide rates, merely involves with inefficiency in providing proper measures for their youth such as full time jobs rather than work temporarily & high chances for job offers for foriegnors (both a productive, contributive and innovative potentials). As graduates/post graduates sometimes don’t find jobs that let them live a good life allowing them to have children (or choose not to) and the ones that wish to have children don’t have the income to do so. The main reason people in Japan don’t marry is because they simply may not wish to or think they can’t afford to support a family. Japan Male population makes up 48.7% while females are 51.3%. Their are more job offers for females then their are for men in Japan, thus, the fall in the ‘Salary-men’ scenario. Half of men have gave up caring, living on basic necessities and not marrying (all the action they see is anime chicks & 2D girlfriends) “This is where counciling, mentorship and pyschyology may be applied. To fix such problems Japan needs to heavily invest in agriculture, allow incentives to move to different regions instead of crowding up in just Tokyo especially for foriegnors to move to other regions and invest over their. Finally, Japan needs Foriegn Investment (majnly from foreign people), the country has people that are introverts and xenophobic thus lack concepts of what’s going on all over the world. If they work in foriegn country they can send money back hom to elevate economy, they might even encourage others to move to Japan. They should allow people to invest in their country and make better relations with neighbour country. Most of all improve their immigration procedures and allow quick employment and investment help to foriegnors that wish to help Japan develop in technology, ecnomics, psychology, health care, travel agencies, investment sectors and agriculture sectors. Their’s much more problem’s in Japan but their is also a fix. Like implementing dual nationaliry will be of large benefit (only people in governement and army sectors are not allowed dual nationality) Although this might be risky as some Japanese people will run away to other countries if they like living their too much. Also i’m sure by 2050 Japan will manage to implement the immigration, but will it be enough to bring people? What will be the incentives for people to leave their own countries? How about implementing child discounts at schools and hospital prices, by the number of children the individual has? And increasing job opportunity for foreigners that wish to become naturalized? (highly rarely that some people would leave their country where they have their family, finances, friends and property at home. It’s rare people will wish to leave all that). I know I wouldn’t I get a heart attack when I think that i’ll be in an economy where no one can speak my language or help a foreignor out, perhaps discriminations and lousy jobs just because i’m a gaijin that didn’t learn Japanese my entire life that happens to just come to this country and find out that I am now a victim of Human trafficking with no one to shelter me, or no one willing to offer a decent job, house, and so on because they know i’m Gaijin and plan to exploit my weakness. I’d say when I am gauranteed safety and support by their government then i’ll choose to live their, otherwise, not worth the risk of wasting my life or hard earned money.

      • Eija Niskanen

        Film industry? You must be kidding. How many films per year does Japan export, as opposed to U.S., India or even South Korea?

      • AlphaOS

        I said to a lesser extent, please focus on the English, even though English is my second language. Furthermore, yes their are pretty good Japanese films that soon became famous and were the picked up by USA itself. The Grudge, The Ring and whatnot. Till this day America had shown some related content to such movies in comedy movies too, such as Scary Movie 1-3, I can’t remember but i’ve seen. Furthermore, Japan’s “Godzilla” and many others. Would you quit typing before you research? Their are much more derived from Japan. Which is later furthered by America.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Imperial Japan was multi-ethnic and had substantial immigration from its colonies. Ishihara Shintaro went on record as favoring immigration more than ten years ago. Keidanren has long favored labor immigration. The German caveat should be taken seriously. In Europe, immigration has led to large ghettos in and around many major cities and a number of countries have had major riots involving largely immigrant populations including Sweden, France, Italy, and Britain. Uncontrolled immigration has been a gift to hard right political parties in France, the Netherlands, Finland, and the UK. Parties that were long regarded as collections of loonies and misfits have started to become a serious political force largely on the basis of immigration issues. Elections in Britain in the last week show this quite clearly. Sakanaka is guilty of looking at only a fraction of the historical record on immigration and multi-ethnic societies.

    • Fayt Strife

      Yeah and how has immigration worked out for Canada and Australia pretty great for both. Mostly because their so far away from everything so they don’t have to deal with illegal immigration.

      The US is in between it’s already a multi ethnic and multi cultural country but it certainly doesn’t have the issues that the European countries have. Well at least not as bad as some of the European countries.

      Look at the top countries where the US get’s immigrants from #1 is Mexico which is a lot closer culturally to the US than some of the countries where European countries get immigrants from.Number 2 and 3 are China and India which are basically all skilled. Now the US totally messed up by tolerating illegal immigrants.

      Europe messed up when they allowed immigrants from their former colonies. That better not be one of the top reasons a country should let in immigrants.

  • koedo

    If Japan, indeed, comes to the determination that immigration on a larger scale is needed, I hope they study the follies of Europe and the United States. The U.S., especially, has been brain dead when it comes to an enlightened immigration policy. This is easily recognized by the considerable societal problems that currently exist inside the U.S. due to mass, uncontrolled immigration. The Europeans are less successful than he U.S. with their attempts to integrate immigrants. Spain, Italy, the UK and Greece are examples of this. There are language and cultural dynamics that absolutely must be addressed. Not every culture can be as easily absorbed and integrated into another country. That is a fact that runs counter to the liberal, politically correct orthodoxy of the West. Australia seems to put forth a reasonable policy that scores an individual based on factors such as age, ability to speak English and whether or not their skill set is needed by the country. Japan would be well served to take a studied look at the successes of the Australian immigration policies and the failures of the EU’s and US’s.

    • Fayt Strife

      Well one of the US’s biggest failures was ignoring illegal immigrants (and the businesses that employ them). The reason why Australia and Canada were more successful than the EU and the US is that they are away from illegal immigrants.Canada has a 2000 mile buffer called the USA and Australia is a giant island.

      As long as Japan allows immigrants skill based only and rounds up an illegal immigrants that come here they should be okay. Also don’t have a family reunification like the US (and punish the businesses that hire illegal immigrants).

  • Jennifer Williams

    They will need to also add something for expecting mothers. If a new family moves to Japan only to face the female head of the family to loose her job over being pregnant that is not a welcoming place for families whether their Japanese or immigrants.

    • lasolitaria

      Not so sure that will stop most immigrants. Many of them would come from developing countries (think of South East Asia and South America) with very traditional family patterns (male head of the family, females not expected to have a job and such).

  • http://japan2usa.wordpress.com/ Chika @ JTU

    Mrs. Watanabe says “no” to colonization.