Japan is officially shrinking. Last October’s census found 19,000 fewer Japanese than the previous year; the first time, barring the catastrophic year of 1945 that the population has dropped since censuses began in 1920.

The peak population figure of 127.75 million may well one day be burned into the brains of future students. By 2050 that is expected to fall to 100 million and some alarmist predictions have the last Japanese switching off the lights sometime in the next century.

Of course such doomsday scenarios seldom materialize but the shrinking population already has consequences, notably on the country’s creaking pension and health systems, which face collapse under the strain of an inverted population pyramid.

Other signs of strain are all around, for those looking.

“Old people died in the heavy snowfalls during winter because their roofs were laden with snow,” says the former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau Hidenori Sakanaka.

“In the past, young people would have cleared that snow, but there are no youngsters left in the countryside.”

Alarmed at such developments and the stubbornly low fertility rate, which slipped to 1.28 in 2004 Sakanaka recently poked his head above the bureaucratic barricades, suggesting that Japan allow in 20 million immigrants over the next half century.

Sakanaka was then head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau; a conscientious civil servant with three decades years experience of controlling the movement of people; not the most promising source for radical solutions to social problems.

Yet amid the careful language in his book, “Nyukan Senki” (“Immigration Battle Diary”), there was a startling, even utopian message: Japan must embrace multiethnic society and become a magnet for immigrants from all over Asia.

The book followed a 2000 U.N. study which suggested Japan needed 310,000 immigrants a year.

Sakanaka, who retired in 2005 and these days can be found behind the desk of the think tank he directs, the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, says he wrote it to provoke discussion.

“It is ultimately the Japanese people who will decide this issue, but the problem is that there is no debate. The population is declining and the birth-rate is falling, and there is no way we will solve this just by encouraging more births. Now is our chance to begin talking about it seriously.”

But discussion has been slow to ignite. An extract from the book ran in the Chuo Koron magazine in 2004, there was a brief stir in the foreign media then . . . nothing. The book has sold less than 6,000 copies.

“It’s almost taboo to raise the issue of mass immigration here,” he says.

“Japan has no experience of this, only of sending people abroad. Modern Japan almost totally shuts out foreigners and the only people who debate the issue are specialists. Nobody is even researching it.”

The taboo hasn’t stopped the number of long-term resident foreigners in Japan from doubling, from 980,000 in 1989 to over 2 million today. But the foreign-born labor force of 800,000 people (many of whom work illegally) is still tiny compared to other advanced economies. Sakanaka says clarity, not charity, should inform the debate.

“Here’s the problem: The population of the world is over 6 billion, and about half of these people live in Asia. The population of China, India Vietnam and so on is growing very fast at the same time as ours is shrinking. We’re a rich country surrounded by developing countries.

“If we just say we’re going to stop immigration completely it will eventually overwhelm us, so we should deal with it now; open the taps slowly to qualified, distinguished people. It’s like a dam; we’re sitting behind it and a tsunami is coming. What are we going to do about it?”

He believes a clear immigration policy would save the economy and warm Japan’s frosty relations with the rest of Asia, but worries that public sentiment in Japan is growing more hostile to the prospect of a “gaijin” on every street.

“The common Japanese view of foreigners is very unsparing at the moment. Twenty years ago, 3 out of 10 people didn’t like the Chinese; today it is 7 out of 10. Many Japanese fear foreigners because they think they cause crime.

“Seventy percent of Japanese are against allowing more tourists. That’s ridiculous. Tourists don’t cause crime and the overwhelming majority of foreigners are good people. But negative thinking about foreigners here is strong.”

Why the fear? Partly it is the way the issue is reported, he says, but the lack of a support system for foreigners who are here doesn’t help.

“Look at that Chinese woman who killed those children. These people feel excluded from or discriminated against by society.”

This analysis hardly makes the ex-bureaucrat a socialist. The business Nikkei newspaper, which ran a 2004 editorial calling for an orderly opening of the labor market also said “foreigners don’t respect the rules and laws in Japan because they don’t feel they are members of Japanese society.”

It added: “Unless the current system designed to shut out foreign workers is changed radically, the number of foreigners who have no interest in abiding by the law will only keep growing.”

Polls suggest many Japanese hold contradictory attitudes. A Cabinet Office survey in 2005 found over 70 percent worried that an increase in illegal foreign workers could undermine public safety, but more than 80 percent said Japan should still accept more foreigners.

The seeds of xenophobia are frequently fertilized by excretions from Kasumigaseki, such as the February comment by Former Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma raising the horrifying prospect of a blue-eyed foreigner muddying the Imperial line.

Takanaka says the discussion has to move beyond the business class and believes the tipping point will come when the government develops some political backbone.

“The politicians are afraid that if they speak positively about immigration they’ll run up against public opinion. But look: The politicians don’t tackle it, the bureaucrats are divided among different agencies, and there is no policy, so who is going to start?”

Two years ago, he met Shinzo Abe, the government’s chief Cabinet secretary and the man widely tipped to take over Japan’s top political job when Junichiro Koizumi retires this autumn. He found Abe’s grasp of what he calls “perhaps the biggest problem facing Japan this century” unimpressive.

“Mr. Abe said: ‘The foreign laborer issue is very difficult and public opinion finds it difficult to accept. It is difficult for politicians to make the first move.’

“Someone should say: Look, there are good and bad foreigners. We won’t solve this by ourselves, so let’s discuss asking foreign laborers to come here in greater but controlled numbers, and making society easier for them to live.

“But we haven’t even got to the entry point of that debate.”

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