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The immigration question

by Hiroaki Sato

Three new books presenting two opposing arguments on world population have made me think of Japan’s immigration policy.

At one end is Alan Weisman’s “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?” At the other end are Philip Kramer’s “The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do About Falling Birth Rates” and Jonathan Last’s “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.”

Weisman, a journalist, warns that Earth can tolerate just about 2 billion human beings at most, ideally 1.5 billion, the level reached around 1900. Now our planet has 7.2 billion and counting. Medical and agronomical innovations, among others, have enabled this unnatural growth and expansion, with untold damage.

Kramer, a professor of Grand Strategy at the National Defense University, and Last, a senior writer at The Washington Weekly, warn, in stark contrast, that the declining birth rates, which Weisman says must be cut sharply, will create demographic and political crises.

Though from polar-opposite angles, Weisman and Kramer make a special note of Japan. The journalist is happy with what’s happening in that country: The population is declining. The professor of Grand Strategy finds it to be a basket case. Even as the government encourages young people to have more babies, it doesn’t do much to help the process. There are woeful shortages of day-care centers, tax deductions are horribly inadequate and so forth.

These contradictory arguments have made me think of Japan’s immigration policy. There is a reason for this.

The year I arrived in the United States, 1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb” became the biggest topic to discuss, other than the Vietnam War. The U.S. population had reached 200 million a year earlier, and I had come from a country, much smaller than California but still teeming with 100 million people. “Overpopulation” was on everyone’s lips in Japan.

Nevertheless, by the early 2000s the Japanese population had grown by more than a quarter. By then, however, different warnings had arisen.

Demographers were pointing to terrible consequences of the aging population. Japan is among the fastest aging countries, a 2004 U.N. report said; by 2025 the country will have only 6 people aged 20 or younger for every 10 aged 65 or older. Unless Japan began to accept dramatically large numbers of people from foreign lands, the country would be in dire straits in a few decades.

So, reading views on the planet Earth already overloaded far beyond its capacity and the reverse danger of not continuing to overload it, I first wondered about Japan’s immigration: Why hasn’t Japan heeded the U.N. warnings?

I asked Akira, a Tokyo friend: What might some of the obstacles be when the Japanese think that their country should accept more immigrants? Akira worked in New York for about a decade some years ago.

There is basically some confusion, he responded.

There is, on one hand, the widespread feeling among his compatriots that “immigrants” are necessarily low-wage earners. This feeling, which has to be traditional in many countries, easily leads to the equation of immigrants with “undesirable elements.”

If that anxiety arises from the position of superiority, the idea of accepting “skilled workers” as immigrants uncomfortably puts the Japanese in the position of inferiority. It may also be taken as a threat by Japanese corporate managers, not least because of the seniority system that continues to hold sway.

Worse, the government hasn’t clarified which group of immigrants to favor even as it floats the idea of changing Japan’s immigration policy.

Akira, in any event, is in a definite minority in thinking Japan should increase immigration. The business website J-CAST’s survey in the spring of 2012, for example, found only one out of seven Japanese supporting the idea of increasing immigrants. Nearly half were “absolutely opposed.”

Put another way, the main obstacle to relaxing immigration restrictions may well be the Japanese unease with “foreigners.” It is typically expressed by the word “gaijin,” and it is what some people mean when they condemn the Japanese for their shimaguni-konjo, “island-nation mindset.” This variety of parochialism once drove the great student of Japanese literature, Edward G. Seidensticker, to publicly declare a farewell to Japan.

Japan doesn’t begin to compare with the United States in matters of immigration, my niece Haruko said when I told her that anti-immigration sentiments are pretty strong in the U.S. as well. In the words of Linda Greenhouse, a Supreme Court watcher for The New York Times, the U.S. today maintains a “harshly anti-immigrant legal regime.”

In point of fact, this country has only sporadically been tolerant of immigrants from the start despite the vaunted self-adulation, “a nation of immigrants,” as John F. Kennedy called it.

And speaking of JFK, his younger brother Ted Kennedy, as a freshman senator, strongly supported the Immigration Law of 1965 because of the same ideal. Conversely, some of the fervent anti-immigration movements, such as the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA, started in opposition to the 1965 law, which has since dramatically changed America’s racial and ethnic contour.

No matter. For many years now we’ve been clearly beyond the realm of choosing between drastically cutting down birth rates and trying to raise them to make up for demographic imbalances.

Indeed, when I think of our overloaded planet as described by Paul Ehrlich and Alan Weisman, what stands out is not the image of old people overwhelming the young. Rather, it is the image that comes from E.O. Wilson’s observation, which Elizabeth Kolbert quotes in discussing the three books mentioned at the outset: “The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate” (“Head Count,” The New Yorker, Oct. 21, 2013). The Harvard biologist made the statement first in his 2003 book, “The Future of Life.”

I must read “The World Without Us.” In that 2007 tract, Alan Weisman is said to imagine a world after all the Anthropocene effects have vanished.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and writer. “Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima” is his book with Naoki Inose.

  • Ron NJ

    “There is, on one hand, the widespread feeling among his compatriots that “immigrants” are necessarily low-wage earners. This feeling, which has to be traditional in many countries, easily leads to the equation of immigrants with “undesirable elements.””
    Ah there it is! “Those poors, always causing trouble and crime! And they don’t look like us either! Better just board up the windows and hide in the corner until they forget we’re here!”

    And for another choice quote: “Japan doesn’t begin to compare with the United States in matters of immigration, my niece Haruko”
    Then why all the “but in America…” comparisons whenever anyone makes any criticism of Japan? Or does this rule, too, only apply when it is convenient to you, like so many things here? Make up your minds and quit waffling back and forth, people.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    There is no shortage of resources to handle billions more people. The travesty is how humanity treats each other – as sacrificial animals to one’s hedonistic beliefs mobilised by vested interests, which gain sanction from our extortion-based ‘representative’ voting system. ‘Reasons’ should be the standard of value; not arbitrary numbers.