“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?”