Population woes crowd Japan



Four decades after the first forecasts that Japan’s population decline was inevitable, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is drawing a demographic red line with a target to halt the slide at 100 million people by 2060, a 20 percent drop from current levels.

But holding the line will be difficult and costly unless Japan opens the door wider to long-term immigration, a step policymakers say they have no intention of taking. A proposal floated among Abe’s advisers to increase the number of immigrants to 200,000 a year by 2050 was rejected.

“What the prime minister is thinking now is to let foreign workers in for a limited period because of the shortage of construction workers in the run-up to the (Tokyo) Olympics in 2020,” said Seiko Noda, head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council.

“As for the idea that in 50 to 100 years this country won’t be able to function unless foreigners are allowed to stay more permanently — no one is thinking about that,” she said in an interview.

Many Japanese have long prided themselves on their cultural homogeneity, although the nation has tiny minorities within its population of about 127 million. With strict immigration laws, less than 2 percent of the population are foreign nationals.

The population has been shrinking for the past three years, and demographic forecasts make grim reading. The number of newborn babies fell to a record low of 1.03 million in 2013 despite a slight uptick in the fertility rate, as the number of women of childbearing age shrank. If the trend continues, the population will fall below 100 million in 2048, and to about 87 million by 2060. At that point, 40 percent of people will be 65 or over.

Such figures have raised the specter of a Japan where ghost towns dot the countryside as huge numbers of elderly huddle in Tokyo, government coffers collapse under the fiscal strain and the nation’s global influence fades.

“If we do not alter the trend of a rapidly shrinking, aging population, there is a risk the economic scale will … fall into a contractionary spiral,” the government said in a draft of economic policies earlier this month.

With a labor shortage already biting, those policies include steps to increase the numbers of highly skilled foreigners as well as to expand a trainee program for blue-collar workers that has been criticized for human rights abuses.

But authorities insist the steps are not part of an “immigration policy.”

“That is probably the worst policy,” retorted lawmaker Taro Kono, deputy head of an LDP committee on foreign workers. “If you stay five years, you don’t have to be a good citizen, you don’t have to practice the Japanese language.

“Keidanren is pushing this (expanded trainee program) because every five years, wages go back to zero. They are trying to introduce cheap labor,” he said, referencing Japan’s top business lobby.

Plans to fill labor shortages caused by the shrinking population by increasing the participation of women and the elderly in the workforce will not suffice, Kono said. “The government is not telling the truth, so a lot of people don’t want to look at immigration,” he said.

A cultural allergy to diversity, as well as negative impressions of the experience of other countries, have combined to make Japanese authorities and the public wary of immigration. Xenophobic voters on the Internet have amplified those concerns, making conservative politicians even more reluctant to address the topic.

“Japan must ultimately open its doors and become open to immigrants,” said Hiroya Masuda, a former Cabinet minister and member of the advisory panel that rejected the proposal to raise the intake of foreigners to help halt the population slide.

“But if we suddenly said, ‘We’ll allow immigration,’ people are not ready for that,” Masuda said during an interview.

Abe’s plan to stabilize the population at 100 million people by 2060 is new, but politicians have long been promising steps to help women juggle work and child care to fill the gaps in the labor market and bear more children — but with limited impact.Japan’s fertility rate, the average number of children a women bears during her life, stood at 1.43 last year. That was higher than the nadir of 1.26 set in 2005 but far below the 2.1 needed for a stable population.

Even hardened skeptics, however, say the focus on the population problem looks different this time, now that mostly male corporate managers are feeling the pain of labor shortages as the economy picks up on Abe’s recipe of hypereasy monetary policy and spending.

“Previous debate about working women focused on gender equality,” the LDP’s Noda said. “This time, what Abe is talking about is the economy.”

The government is shying away from explicit fertility rate targets, not least because they would have uneasy echoes of Japan’s wartime “Beget and Multiply” policy.

But experts say stabilizing the population even at about 90 million without a significant increase in immigrants would mean pushing up the fertility rate to 2.1, and the sooner the better.

The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, estimates that would require spending an additional ¥13 trillion ($127 billion) on child care benefits annually over 15 years. That amount would equal 2.6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product and the revenue from a 6 percentage point rise in the sales tax.

Japan currently spends a little less than 1 percent of GDP on such support. Major changes in lifestyles, work patterns and mindsets would also be required.

In a proposal rejected by the government advisory panel, former Bank of Japan Deputy Gov. Kazumasa Iwata, who now heads the economic research think tank, suggested Japan aim for a fertility rate of 1.8 while gradually allowing more immigrants up to a rate of 200,000 a year by 2050. That would increase the percentage of foreigners to 6 percent of the total populace.

Iwata said initial costs associated with immigrants would be more than offset by the benefits.

“At first, there is a cost for infrastructure and the like. But these foreigners will work and pay taxes so in the long term, it is a plus for the Japanese economy and that plus becomes larger,” he said.

Japan’s recent experiments with immigration have hardly been encouraging. A program allowing in Brazilians of Japanese descent, thought easier to assimilate, as a source of cheap labor ground to a halt when the economy stalled in 2008, prompting the government to pay for many of them to go home.

But the nascent debate suggests attitudes may be slowly changing.

“People in the more conservative parts of the government are starting to realize there aren’t a lot of options left,” said Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. “When push comes to shove, they don’t really have a choice and that is forcing changes to the mindset at the margins.”

  • zayahv2

    I wouldn’t want to marry or have kids with a Japanese man either. These guys think of their women as nothing more than baby making machines. It will take the collapse of their economy and their population before they are willing to think different.

    • JTCommentor

      There is a word to describe such (negative) race based generalizations

      • zayahv2

        I am sure there are, however since my wife is Japanese the word I would use instead would be “correct”. If over here one of our politicians called women baby making machines he would be out of a job. In japan, he gets to keep his position. If its inconvenient to call it like it is that’s just too bad.

      • JTCommentor

        The issue is that you take the actions of one fool, and generalize it onto every male in that country. Then defend it as correct because your wife is Japanese? Your post assumes that all Japanese men are the same, in a negative way, because they are Japanese. Do you know all Japanese men to make such an assumption? Does marrying a Japanese woman somehow give you a connection to all Japanese men? If you marry a black woman, do you get to make negative generalizations against black people?

        Clearly not. Your response is clearly not “correct”, regardless of who you have married.

      • zayahv2

        My post, like most generalizations are about the majority attitude or whats generally accepted. It is preposterous to ever take a statement and say “all” because I have not met “all” Japanese men. I do however have enough experience and information to call the general attitude. Just like here you can’t hide that racism is alive and well. Are you going to argue my point because I have never met everyone in America? Marrying a Japanese woman gave me the feedback of a woman who spent most of her life around this general attitude which is just one of many sources that paint a picture. You make the unintelligent argument that marrying someone gives you no feedback. Well your argument is pretty silly. I brought up the marrying point only to make the point that I was not a racist not that it gave me the knowledge of all the universe. Her insight into how she was treated by men in japan plus everything else paints a picture. Something in your self righteous nonsense you clearly failed to understand and instead went into attack mode without even using your brain. The argument of “one fool” is also a bad argument because the “one fool” is in government and has not been removed by everyone else which tells you something doesn’t it?

      • Guest

        Its interesting you claim that my response was an attack. Can you point me to the attack in any of my responses, on anyone other than the fool in govermnent (which is agreeing with your point, to some extent)? You then turn around and tell me my response is a) unintelligent, b) self riteous, c) not using my brain, d) a bad argument.

        This is known as an ad hominem argument – its an argument against the other person making the argument, rather than the topic, and is generally used when you dont have a good argument yourself, to distract or derail the argument. Also someone who lists their qualifications (in your case, your personal situation of being married to a Japanese) as a reason why people should accept what you are saying is a hallmark of a bad argument. If your argument has merit, it will stand on its own feet without needing to attack me, or claim you somehow have great knowledge based on your wife.

        Lets go back to your initial argument “I wouldn’t want to marry or have kids with a Japanese man either. These guys think of their women as nothing more than baby making machines. It will take the collapse of their economy and their population before they are willing to think different.” Is that a generalization equivalent to “racism exists in the US”, as you say? I dont think so, I think its a broad brushed statement, an attack on male Japanese. A more appropriate equivalent, using your example, would be “I wouldnt want to marry or have kids with an American man either. These guys are racist. It will take the collapse of their economy and their population before they are willing to think any different”. How reasonable is that now? And how about if its all based on stores told to be by one person – if I formed my view of the USA not by living there, growing up there, being from there, but from my American friend who left America after a bad experience. How reasonable is your argument sounding now?

      • zayahv2

        Your style of response is known as BS flooding. When you are called out on something because you said something so preposterously stupid you go into this wanna be psycho babble and attempt to veer away from the point by claiming even more preposterous BS and attempt to disguise it into intelligent speak. You disagree with what I said but you are biased or are just way self righteous. You refuse to accept cultural norms and make the argument that things simply can not be a certain way because you have not met everyone. That’s like saying the south wasn’t racism before the civil war because you had not met every southerner. Sure there could have been some that weren’t but definitely a small minority and that would not be a wrong generalization. That’s also like saying Uganda does not hate gays just because they execute gay people. You are too emotionally vested in this apparently because you choose to ignore pretty much everything and like everyone with a bad argument always ask to be spoon fed information that can be very easily looked up with a google search.

    • spartan2600

      There are dozens of examples of economic and population collapse, most of them too horrifying to mention by name. Not a single one made the people suddenly ‘snap out of it.’ Collapse in Japan will only bring back the genocidal Fascists to power. There are currently 100,000 Uyoku Dantai members it is only they who will benefit with societal collapse.

      The only way to save Japan is to have a feminist revolution and a similar radical change in values regarding immigrants. I think the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) is doing the most to improve things in this regard. They get about 10% of the vote nationally, which is impressive. At the same time, they’re much smaller than the big two parties but they field by far the most female candidates of any political party.

      • zayahv2

        Its sad because Japanese women are loyal hard working women.

      • phu

        Is your view really so black and white? Japanese men are pigs, Japanese women are saints? A lot of people are going to have a very hard time taking you seriously when you make such painfully facile generalizations.

      • zayahv2

        Only self righteous people like yourself believe that I see things in black and white. If you expose yourself to a culture you pick up on what is generally accepted and general attitudes. Now while it might hurt some peoples feelings or be hard to believe to others that such a modern country could be so backwards in attitude japan does exist. My wife graduated from one of the top universities in japan. While in an interview she was asked if she would be ok serving tea. She answered as long as everyone else does it it would be fine. She was told by her friend that the boss didn’t like her response and that he would not be considering her. She left japan to escape that environment and came here. So personal experience combined with polls and interviews of women and you get a feeling for what’s common or generally acceptable. Kind of like how we don’t like to hire blacks here even when they are equally as qualified. It’s also a fact that the diet member who’s name eludes me at the moment didn’t lose his seat after making the comment that women were just baby making machines, something that would be unheard of here in the US. Women in japan make 35% less than men with equal or even less experience. You add all these little factors and they add up to, yup, you guessed it. When you know something for a fact and call it like it is, people like you tend to be skeptical, especially since this is one of those extreme situations where you just didn’t think it could be possible. While I might not always post an entire essay to backup my views it does not automatically necessarily mean I am either making it up or am biased or hateful or incorrect.

      • JTCommentor

        Look, your responses are coming across as overly emotional and not really logical. Clearly you love your wife, and are basing your view of Japanese men and the plight of all Japanese women on her negative experiences in the country. I assure you, while her experiences must have been very frustrating for her, there are many women in Japan who are either very successful in their jobs, or are very happy with what they are doing (high flighing business people or home makers alike). In addition to this, the government is currently committed to making sure that women have better working conditions – addressing some of the specific issues you raised. Finally, most Japanese men are not the terrible people you make them out to be – particularly the current generation.

        I believe that Phu’s disagreement with your comments is not because you dont back up your opinions with facts, but the extreme and somewhat emotional overgeneralizations you post, rather than more balanced views stating your views as based on your or your wife’s experience (rather than what you know the country as a whole to be like).

      • zayahv2

        You can not convey emotions through text unless there is narration. You can however convey your own emotions and attempt to relate in which you have interpreted experience for emotional attachment of some kind. There are successful women in Japan, and they make 30% less than their male counterparts. The current generation is having an issue with being interested in women as many polls have shown and the old generation currently in charge are the ones legislating. What happened in this article is sort of equivalent to the “you lie” when Obama was speaking. Once you start to try to change things the ugliness hidden comes to the surface. I would suggest rather than going by surface looks or experiences that you dive into polls, reports and articles that highlight the problems and paint a picture. Clearly not all men in Japan are the same but you can’ deny there is a big problem and when someone in government can remain there after such comments you know the problem is deeper than “one bad apple”.

  • phu

    Based on past and current policy, programs, and priorities, when Abe says “people,” I don’t think “immigrants” count.

  • JTCommentor

    Try not to be too sensitive Greg. And nobody says “foreign nationals” in casual conversations.


      In most developed countries people would not determine your origin in casual conversation. Though I’m a “white Hongkonger” I’ve lived overseas where people would refer to other races usually as whites, blacks, Orientals etc. In no way would they imply that you don’t belong there, for example calling a minority a “foreigner”. And the point I’m making is, if the so called foreigner immigrates to Japan, they aren’t a foreigner any more while they are in Japan.

      • lasolitaria

        So they aren’t “foreigner” anymore while they are in Japan but they still are “foreign nationals”, right? Why is this difference in words even important? I think such a distinction between “foreigner” and “foreign national” isn’t relevant for any reasons other than PCness.

      • JTCommentor

        I agree with your views, but these are your views. Maybe these are shared by the majority of people in developed countries, I havent spoken to enough people to know. Even if they are, why do you presume that Japanese people should adopt those standards, just because they work elsewhere, or are normal elsewhere?

        There are complex demographic and social reasons why multiculturalism may work (relatively well) in some countries but not others. There is no “one size fits all”, and to presume that just because, say, Canada can do multiculturalism well, that Japan must too. It mustnt. It can, if it wants, as a soverign state – but if they chose to have more strict rules regarding immigration, it does not make them any less of a “developed” nation.

  • Ken Ken

    I think its a big improvement over “Aliens” which was used few years back.

    • JTCommentor

      I think this term is still in popular use both in the US and Japan. And a song by Sting.

  • Timoty Sullivan

    In the last Tokyo marathon, 5 nihon-jin run under 2 h 10′. Norway’s population is only 5 or 6 milion . Sweden is only 9 or 10. New Zelanda is only 5 or 6 milion. In the future, japan with only 80 milion people can do every thing. OK immigration, but only little, only educated people. Japan no need dogs or monkeys. Please no tattos, please talk with low voice, please don’t forget, in japan don’t use the tip, don’t walk with gun. Please respect the people. Please, don’t be Animals

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      Are you referring to human beings from other countries as “..dogs or monkeys..” Timoty (sic) ?

      • Timoty Sullivan

        I am referring to all the people (immigrant or japanese or aliens ) who behave like dogs and monkeys

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Well I’m glad you cleared that up, wouldn’t want any dogs or monkeys running in the next Tokyo marathon, would we?

  • Warren Lauzon

    One interesting thing is that so much of the discussion in Japan is about immigration, and so little about the most underutilized labor force in the country – the female population.

    • JTCommentor

      Isnt it the other way around? Hasn’t Abe dug up the old term “womenomics”, addressed womends groups, and publicly stated that women make up a key part of the “third arrow” of his plan?

  • Warren Lauzon

    One little known fact is that the US fertility rate is also very low at 1.86. Nearly all the population growth recently has come from immigration.

  • spartan2600

    Big businesses don’t support permanent immigration, they want temporary immigrants and temporary jobs. As the article mentions, “every five years, wages go back to zero.”

    • Earl Kinmonth

      What is your source for your claim? Big business pushed for the Brazilians. They can get permanent residency if they want it. Big business is primarily interested in skilled workers. They do not want to train workers and then lose their investment at the end of five years. Big business also fears market contraction as the number of consumers decline. Temporary workers tend to send most of their earnings home. Permanent workers spend much more in the country where they are working. It is smaller firms with low skill jobs that that might want churn. And, the statement “every five years, wages go back to zero” is utter nonsense. Even the worst employers do not get away with paying zero wages. Presumably, the author means “the skill increment goes back to zero every five years,” but the skill increment for typical migrant jobs such as cutting lettuce, gutting fish, etc. is not that big to begin with. The major push to keep the period for labor migrants short has been the Homusho (Ministry of Justice). This has been mentioned in just above every Japanese language article I’ve read on the subject. I would suggest you read Japanese language accounts pertaining to this issue, especially those in the Nihon Keizai Shinbun. They are much more detailed than what you get in the JT.

  • disqus_78r6IPfptX

    Population decline in Japan is like global warming: it can’t be stopped. No
    way, no how. News reports on Japan’s demographics are appearing with
    greater frequency because now the population has shrunk for the last three
    years in a row, is projected to continue doing so, and this worries people. Even though it was predicted decades ago the politicians are only now getting serious. Prime Minister Abe has made it his policy to halt the decline at an even hundred million by the year 2060. Of course the policy will fail. First, because the decline is not so much a transitory thing as a grand historical resetting. Second, because the government refuses to address the main reason for small contemporary families: it’s the high cost of living more than anything else. It’s not so much about the availability of child care, the monies spent on family allowances, paid maternity/paternity leave, or holiday time as it is the cost of living, stupid! With that in mind, it must be said that deflation was a jolly good thing. But now we have a government committed to inflation because politicians are in the pockets of large corporations and lobby groups and inflation speaks to their profitability in the midst of a history of bad investments and incompetence. Business needs inflation to cover the costs of its own folly.

    The government doesn’t want the public to think it, but the high fertility rates that created Japan’s large modern population are the anomaly, not the norm. What is happening now with the unsustainably low fertility rate is that the population is naturally reaching for a new, smaller, stable level by reviving an historically ‘normal’ fertility rate. So this is what’s going to happen: once it reaches that level – 90 million or less – then the fertility rate, the number of children an average woman has in her lifetime, will rebound to the 2.1 level needed to maintain the status quo. The government can enact laws to jury rig the situation, but women control their own bodies as they should, and the collective population has an independent intelligence that defies micromanagement.

    • Warren Lauzon

      Actually a LOT of countries have flat or even declining populations – even the US would be if not for immigration. If you look at global birthrate chart you can see that high rates are just what you said – an anomaly in the 21st century. Some 20 or so years ago Hispanic immigrants had a very high birthrate, but even that has dropped by 50% or so.