National / Social Issues | FOCUS

Despite government reluctance, Japan's population outlook makes immigration talk inevitable

Kyodo

The latest forecasts for the decline in the nation’s population are likely to bring forward the debate on immigration, despite the government’s refusal to use the word “immigration” to describe its policies.

The country’s population is expected to shrink to 88.08 million by 2065, down roughly 30 percent from its 2015 level, according to a government estimate released Monday.

Although that is a slower pace of decline than the last estimate in 2012, the figures indicate a dark outlook for the government’s goal of keeping the population at 100 million by 2064.

Far from displaying alarm, the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has interpreted the data in a way that plays up the achievements of government policies, which focus on encouraging people to have more children while allowing “foreign workers” to be employed in a limited range of fields.

A source close to the welfare ministry research body responsible for the latest estimate said the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on researchers to present the figures in a way that indicated some sort of improvement.

The business world, meanwhile, is looking at employing foreign nationals as a way to make up for an anticipated labor shortage, meaning debate on immigration will likely end up on the government’s doorstep whether or not it is politically convenient.

“The birthrate problem won’t be fixed by force of will alone,” warned a Tokyo mother of three who started an online movement to draw attention to the difficulty of raising children in Japan.

A Twitter hashtag by Tae Amano, 42, this year struck a chord with parents nationwide whose plans are on hold as they struggle to find their young children places in child care facilities.

“If you have a child, the economic burden from school fees and other costs grows, and for women there is the risk that their careers will be cut short,” Amano said. “We need to change this climate in which giving birth means you lose out.”

Local and regional authorities have been trying to keep their populations stable by encouraging parenthood, with varying results.

The 6,000-strong town of Nagi in Okayama Prefecture has been providing cheap rental properties and paying birth gifts of up to ¥400,000 ($3,600) to new parents.

The town’s total fertility rate — an estimate of the number of children born over a woman’s lifetime — leapt from 1.41 in 2005 to 2.81 in 2014.

In Kochi Prefecture, initiatives to encourage marriage have seen some success but have also attracted criticism that they amount to sexual harassment.

The welfare ministry’s research body, the National Institute of Population and Security Research, typically puts out its 50-year population estimates every five years in January, but this time delayed the release until April.

Institute researchers said this was to allow a “conditional estimate” to be released at the same time. The estimate concluded that it would be possible to maintain the population at 100 million in 2060 if the Abe administration’s goal of raising the fertility rate to 1.8 children per woman by 2025 were realized.

That gives the government just 10 years to push up the rate from 2015’s 1.45.

While the ministry has denied that “political circumstances” were behind the delay, a source close to the institute said there was “an order from the Prime Minister’s Office to show the figures so as to emphasize an improvement.”

According to the ministry’s analysis, a boost in child care facilities and policies supporting work-life balance drove an increase in the birth rate for women in their 30s and 40s.

“The fulfillment of our supportive policies have achieved a result,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, told a news conference Monday.

Asked if the goal of maintaining 100 million people in 2064 is achievable, he answered, “Of course.”

Suga balked at the suggestion that the government might consider a fully fledged immigration policy to combat the population decline.

“Once we have considered in a comprehensive and concrete manner how to take on foreigners, focusing on the fields in which this is genuinely required, we will do the necessary studies, including on how to make an arrangement that would not be confused with an immigration policy, and build a national consensus,” Suga said.

Corporations are already moving to employ foreign nationals in the face of a projected plunge in the working population, aged between 15 and 64.

The latest figures estimate this population will decline more than 40 percent from its 2015 level to 45.29 million in 2065.

Convenience store operator Lawson Inc. has built training facilities in South Korea and Vietnam to teach prospective exchange students about Japanese culture and customer service so they can take up part-time positions once they arrive in Japan.

The total number of foreign workers in Japan, including working exchange students and participants in a government training program, reached a record 1.08 million in October last year.

Japan’s most powerful business lobby, the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) has proposed allowing foreign nationals to work in more fields including caring for the growing elderly population.

Keidanren Chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara told a news conference on Monday the acceptance of immigrants “needs to be considered as a long-term issue.”