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Immigrants can buoy Japan

by Robert Dujarric

It is not possible to spend more than a few minutes with a Japanese diplomat or scholar without hearing the “C,” namely China. Most of them are convinced that the People’s Republic is expanding its global influence while Japan’s is shrinking. The entire world, and most worryingly Asia, which used to look toward Japan when Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel crowned it “No. 1″ now sees China not only as the country of the future but already as today’s only Asian giant.

There is an element of truth in this concern. China has deepened and expanded its economic, political and cultural reach in the past two decades. Japan, on the other hand, has failed to show the same dynamism. Past and current Japanese administrations have sought to counteract these trends, but their ambitions have generally been thwarted by the unwillingness to spend more (foreign aid, cultural diplomacy, etc.) and the power of the agricultural lobby, which has forced Japan to lag behind China in initializing free-trade agreements (the value of which may be disputed, but they do have a public-relations impact).

There is one area, however, where Japan could engage in a strategy that would simultaneously help its economy and give it an edge over China. This is immigration. Japan is unique among economies that are highly developed and in demographic decline in having so few immigrants. In fact, even European states that are in much better demographic condition also have large numbers of foreigners and recently naturalized citizens in their labor force.

The domestic economic advantages of a more open immigration policy are well documented. What is less understood is how it can be used as a foreign policy instrument. If Japan were home to several million guest workers, the country would become the lifeline of tens of millions of individuals back in their homeland who would benefit from the remittances of their relatives in the archipelago. Its economic role in the lives of some of these countries would become second to none. Many individuals would start to study Japanese, in the hope of one day working in the country. Familiarity with Japan and its culture would also rise dramatically in these nations.

Moreover, Japanese diplomatic power would increase as well. Leaders who may now be more interested in kowtowing to Beijing would suddenly pay more attention to Tokyo. Governments would take much more seriously a country that would be home to many of its best-paid citizens (even a manual laborer in a remote Japanese town is a high-earner by the standards of a Third World nation).

Many of the immigrants would probably be Chinese. Having the enormous advantage of familiarity with Chinese ideographs (kanji), they would be particularly well represented among the ranks of the best educated new arrivals. This would give Chinese, both those who are in Japan and the much more numerous ones who will be in touch with the friends and relatives in the country, access to the reality of Japanese life without the filter of the Chinese media’s anti-Japanese bias.

It would thus give Japan direct access to the Chinese people, especially the educated elite, without interference from the Communist Party’s propaganda machine. This is particularly important since Japan should prepare itself for the possibility of a future China where public opinion could play a greater role in shaping policy.

Immigrants would also gradually provide Japanese businesses with a pool of truly bicultural and bilingual employees whom they could hire and use to develop their overseas activities. Japanese universities would gain researchers who are not only well-trained but also better able to participate in international scientific projects and symposiums. Bringing qualified teachers from countries such as the Philippines and India could give Japanese students, for the first time in their lives, the experience of learning English with instructors who actually know the language fluently (unlike many Japanese who teach English) and who are trained to teach (as opposed to the many Westerners in “English conversation schools” whose blue eyes and blond hair are frequently their only qualifications).

All of these changes would benefit not only Japan’s economy but also its ability to be heard in the world. Thus, immigration is one of the most important tools Japan has if it wishes to build a new Asia where Japan will be at the center rather than the periphery.

Robert Dujarric is director, the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus. (robertdujarric@gmail.com.)