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Japan’s population problem

by Hugh Cortazzi

Japanese leaders and Japanese people generally are well aware of their nation’s demographic challenges. The population has begun to decline and the proportion of people of working age continues to decrease. The birthrate is well below replacement level. Japanese people are aging fast while life expectancy continues to increase. The implications for the Japanese economy and for Japan’s position in the world should be obvious.

Yet Japanese political and business leaders prefer not to discuss the long-term issues. Is this because these are too difficult? Or is it because they don’t think that there is much they can do to alter the likely course of events? Or is it that they are too preoccupied with the day-to-day problems that face them? Or do they say to themselves that these issues can be safely left to their successors? Or do they, like the 18th century mistress of King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, simply say to themselves “apres nous le deluge” (after us comes the flood)?

Some steps are being taken to mitigate the problems facing Japan, but they are totally inadequate.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged business firms to employ more women and promote them to more senior positions, but he has had only limited success so far. The basic problem lies in the traditional attitudes of a male-dominated society that developed in a land where fighting was venerated and regarded as heroic. Confucian ethics emphasized the dominance of the male. That the mythological founder of Japan, Amaterasu, was a goddess was conveniently overlooked.

Employing more women will not in itself solve the problem. Women need to know that if they take time off to have babies they will not lose out in the competition for promotion as they do at present in most Japanese companies.

“Womenomics,” as the policy of employing more women has come to be called, requires the provision of more day care centers, but the provision of facilities will not solve the problem posed by the adherence of mothers-in-law in Japan to the concept that looking after one’s own children is the sine qua non of motherhood.

Young Japanese men are, it is said, becoming much more willing to undertake domestic chores in addition to taking their youngsters to visit Disneyland, but there are not yet many young Japanese men who will willingly become house husbands.

Another issue seems to be a decline in Japanese fertility. It has been suggested by some that one element in this is the continuing Japanese traditional disapproval of children born to unmarried mothers. Another is the trend toward later marriage and mothers not having their first child until they are in their late 30s. Others suggest that Japanese attitudes toward paid sex and pornography are also factors.

Even if a revolutionary change in such Japanese traditional attitudes can be engineered (and I am a little skeptical), it would take many years to work through the system and wouldn’t necessarily lead to the creation of a Japanese birthrate that will achieve a stable population.

In the meantime, the decline in the number of young Japanese people has implications for high schools and universities as well as for industry and commerce. It also means that it will become more and more difficult to fund pensions for old people and to find carers for them.

One way of coping with the declining number of young workers is to increase imports of finished goods from countries where wages are relatively low. Japan’s balance of payments is likely to allow this for some time to come.

Another way to deal with the likely shortage of labor is by increased use of robots. This is already happening and will certainly lead to a phasing out of certain white- and blue-collar jobs although the prognostications of SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son on this score seem overblown.

Ultimately, Japan will only survive and prosper if it alters its deep-seated prejudice against immigration. One argument against immigration is that it would alter significantly Japan’s homogeneous population with its shared values and harmonious consensus.

Although this argument has some force the implied picture of Japanese society is framed in tinsel. The Korean and Chinese minorities have been painted over, as have regional cultures such as those of the Ryukyu Islands and Hokkaido. It also ignores the existence of the Japanese diaspora in North and South America.

Does any Japanese leader have the courage to start arguing publicly and loudly for a relaxation of Japan’s at best illiberal immigration policies that are damaging to the nation’s economic and ultimately national interests? Some nurses have been admitted from the Philippines, but the stringent language tests have been a deterrent and Japan’s welcome mat for such necessary workers is restricted.

Fortunately for Japan, the refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East knocking down the doors into Europe are a long way away and are unlikely to be landing anytime soon on Japan’s shores. The Vietnamese boat refugees of the late 1970s are unlikely to come again, although no one knows what might happen if the North Korean tyranny were one day to explode. Japan has shamefully taken very few refugees despite the huge numbers living on a pittance in refugee camps throughout the world.

Japan faces massive demographic problems that will not go away. It is dangerous and selfish to leave it to future generations to find solutions. Like climate change, it behooves the leaders of this generation to face up to the challenges and start tackling the issues with vision and determination. For Japan the immediate requirement is to confront vigorously Japanese male and ethnic chauvinism and traditional prejudices.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.