Last June, I attended a symposium sponsored by the German Institute of Japanese Studies. Themed “Imploding Populations: Global and Local Challenges of Demographic Change,” I took in presentations about health care, international and domestic migration, and life in a geriatric society.

Nothing surprising. The United Nations and our government acknowledged back in 2000 that Japan was heading for a demographic nightmare: a decreasing population, more old people than we can take care of, not enough young people to pay taxes, and economic decline.

Shocking, however, was the bad science: The presenting Japanese scientists were deliberately ignoring data fundamental to their field.

One panel was particularly odd. Panelists concluded, of course, that Japan must do something to stop this demographic juggernaut. A deputy director general at Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research even extrapolated that Japanese would be extinct by the year 3000! Yet the prospect of Japan’s decimation was no match for the fear of the foreign element.

During the Q-and-A, I asked: “Sir, only briefly in your presentation do you mention letting foreigners into Japan as a possible solution. However, you depict the process not as ‘immigration’ (imin), but as the ‘active use of the foreign working labor population’ (gaikokujin rodoryoku jinko no katsuyo). Why this rhetoric?”

The speaker hedged a bit, suddenly asserting that Japan is now a crowded island society. To paraphrase, “Immigration is not an option for our country. Inflows must be strictly controlled for fear of overpopulation.”

Afterward, one on one, I reconfirmed his intellectual disconnect. He further cited “a lack of national consensus” on the issue. When I asked if this was not a vicious circle (i.e. avoiding public discussion of the issue means no possible consensus), he gave a noncommittal answer. When I asked if “immigration” had become more of a political term than a scientific one, he begged off replying further.

Seems I opened Pandora’s Box. For the rest of the conference, whenever a Japanese presenter discussed every option for Japan’s future but immigration (they all avoided it), they played dodgeball with questions from other scientists. The ignorance was systematic — only one gave a begrudging acknowledgment that foreigners might be necessary for Japan’s future, although he personally couldn’t imagine it.

As a German expert of demographics told me afterward with consternation, “Demographics is the study of population changes: births, deaths, inflows and outflows. How can the Japanese demographers ignore inflows, even the possibility of them, in their assessments and still think they are doing good science?”

The reason is because this science in Japan has become riddled with politics. We know Japan’s population will continue to drop. Yet extinction still seems preferable to letting people in to stay.

Thus “immigration,” like “racial discrimination” (JBC, June 2), has become another taboo topic. One must not mention it by name, especially if you represent a government-funded think tank.

Then, when you have whole branches of government studiously ignoring the issue (even though last June the Health Ministry proposed training for companies to hire more foreigners, the former Aso Cabinet wouldn’t consider immigration as one of its top five priority plans), we can but say that the ostrich is in full burrow mode.

This is why I’m having trouble seeing any public policy — from the Nikkei workers being bribed to go home after two decades of contributions, to the proposed imports of Indonesian and Philippine nurses — as anything more than yet another “active use of the foreign working labor population.” Or, more honestly put, programs exploiting revolving-door employment regimes.

How seriously can we continue to tempt foreigners with the promise of a life in Japan in exchange for the best years of their labor productivity, only to revoke their livelihoods and pension contributions at the first opportunity, blaming globalization’s vicissitudes? How seriously can we make continued employment contingent upon a qualification hurdle (such as a tough nursing exam) that would challenge even native speakers?

This will only hurt us as a society in future. Again, we are on the cusp of a future in a society that can’t pay or take care of itself. It’s already happening in Japan’s depopulated countryside. Demographic science, if practiced properly, leads inevitably to that conclusion.

So here’s my reality check: Either way, people will come to Japan — even if it means they find an enfeebled or empty island to live in. With a new political administration in government, we might as well consider bringing in people now while we have more energy and choices.

Time out. Just like that guy at the think tank, time for me to be hit with a Debito-style question: “Who decides what Japan wants?”

Answer: We residents do, of course. But the people who represent or make decisions for us are not necessarily receptive enough (or all that developed as human beings) to understand one simple thing: People who appear to be different are not a threat. We cannot expect leaders and bureaucrats to guide us to a world they cannot envision.

So I will keep asking the Debito Questions, and argue that people like us are a viable alternative to Japan’s slow but inexorable decline. For Japan’s sake, we must save us from ourselves. I’ll suggest how next month.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month.

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