Calling All Gaijin! Immigration Reform for Japan

By Wohns, Anthony Wilder | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Calling All Gaijin! Immigration Reform for Japan


Wohns, Anthony Wilder, Harvard International Review


According to the United Nations, the world's demographic profile will be radically different in the year 2100. Mid-range population projections predict that in 2100, Japan's population will have fallen to under 100 million, over 28 million less than today. In the same time period, Nigeria's population will have jumped to 700 million, an increase of 537.5 million. However, a demographic bright spot for Japan remains. The UN projects that Japan's life expectancy will lead the world at well over 90 in 2100, and an astounding 106.3 in the year 2300. The question of how the UN can, in good conscience, produce a study that predicts the state of the world 300 years into the future is intriguing, but the pressing issue for Japan is how to approach this massive projected population decline.

The natural solution for Westerners to turn to is immigration. Americans, and increasingly Western Europeans, are used to living in societies composed of immigrants. Furthermore, the United States has never been a ethnically homogeneous nation. Similarly, the United Kingdom, a European nation that is geographically comparable to Japan by virtue of their both being island nations, has never been as ethnically homogenous as Japan. This is a fact that must be understood if Westerners are to understand why a majority of Japanese people oppose increasing immigration.

In 2008, politicians from Japan's Liberal Democratic Party put forward a proposal to increase the number of immigrants to 10% of the population (an influx of 11 million immigrants). One impetus for this plan was a recognition of the need for more workers for Japanese industry. Geopolitical issues also were at play, for there was concern over decreased Japanese clout as a result of a smaller population. According to The Economist magazine, the author of the plan, Hidenori Sakanaka, pictured a multicultural Japanese society in the future.

However, the majority of the Japanese public did not. According to an Asahi Shim bun poll, 65% of Japanese people opposed increasing immigration and only 26% were in favor.

If these sentiments persist, it is unlikely that the Japanese government will change its immigration policy in the near future. But even if they did, the amount of immigration needed to halt population decline may be greater than Japan can comfortably absorb. The Japanese population is currently declining at such a rate that the nation will require several hundred thousand immigrants per year to maintain it's population. This is much greater than the 15,000 new citizens that Japan currently receives each year through naturalization. Another unconventional United Nations study from the past decade estimates how many immigrants Japan would need to maintain various population statistics. In one scenario, Japan would need 10 million immigrants per year to maintain the ratio of ratio of 4.8 workers to I retiree that it had in 1995. This would mean that Japan's population in 2050 would be 818 million. This is hardly a realistic scenario.

Clearly, immigration alone will most likely not solve Japan's demographic problem. However, some argue that population decline is not a problem at all. In a recent article in The Guardian, Dean Baker argues that population decline is wonderful news environmentally speaking. He goes on to predict that population decline also entails greater economic equality.

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