Even as population shrinks, Japan remains wary of immigration

By Lee Hockstader
Sunday, March 14, 2010

TOYKO -- Much of what you need to know about Japan's long-standing attitude toward immigrants is summed up in the logo of the nation's official immigration agency: It depicts a plane departing, rather than arriving.

But today the country faces a demographic crisis, one that some here believe will finally compel a traditionally homogeneous Japan to turn that plane around and let foreign workers come. The population is aging and shrinking -- a formula for economic calamity and social stagnation. Over time, there will be too few workers to care for the millions of elderly citizens, grow food on farms or fill the manufacturing jobs that drive this export-led economy.

Given the forces of history and culture, the notion of a multiethnic Japan may seem impossible, a tautology in a country where nationality and ethnicity are fused to the point of being nearly indistinguishable. Yet a multiethnic Japan is what the country needs to become if it is to survive among the top tier of the world's powers.

Japanese leaders have tried other options, and failed. For two decades, Japan's stubbornly low birth rate has barely budged, despite many government incentives for couples to have more children. The new left-leaning government's recent move to boost per-child monthly cash payments to families will be cripplingly expensive and probably unsustainable. (It's also unlikely to convince women, who are marrying later or not at all, to have more children with Japanese husbands who remain allergic to sharing child-rearing duties.) The result could be a working-age population cut nearly in half by midcentury.

So, can the Japanese shed their traditions and allow more foreigners in their midst? On a recent trip, I was struck by the range of people I encountered -- government officials, politicians, bureaucrats, business representatives, demographers and others -- who argued that the nation has little choice but to do just that. Unfortunately for the Japanese, it appears unlikely that they will do so in time, or at the pace needed, to reverse the population declines.

To some extent, the notion of Japan as ethnically homogenous is not exactly right. For years, the country has admitted increasing numbers of foreign workers, without fanfare, as officials have tried to plug holes in the workforce. The number of nonethnic Japanese residents has crept upward in the past few decades and now stands officially at 2.2 million -- about 1.7 percent of the population.

Starting with more than 650,000 Koreans, a legacy of Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1905 to 1945, the country has also taken hundreds of thousands of Chinese, as well as tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, Filipino and Indonesian nurses, African workers, and others. In addition, about 500,000 Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese ancestry have been allowed into the country since 1990, many of them to work in manufacturing plants.

The presence of these immigrants could be seen as the beginning of a revolution, or at least evolution, in Japanese attitudes toward foreigners. In Yokohama, Japan's second-biggest city, I spoke to the director of a nursing home who recruited a pair of Indonesian nurses two years ago. The Indonesians -- bright, able, outgoing and full of laughter -- were among the most popular members of the facility's caregiving staff and had set an example for what the director called their "standoffish" Japanese colleagues. The director shook her head in sorrow at the likelihood that the Indonesians would be unable to remain in the country unless they passed a tough licensing exam, given only in Japanese. "They have injected new life into this place," she said.

At city hall, officials proudly displayed brochures with instructions for garbage separation and recycling -- available in Japanese, English, Vietnamese, Chinese and Portuguese. "The big inflow of foreigners, Chinese and others, has changed the mind-set of Japanese here," said Osamu Yamamoto, who oversees interethnic policy in the city of 3.7 million people.

However, a 2001 U.N. report found that just to maintain its population of about 125 million, Japan would have to permit average annual net migration of 381,000 people for 50 years -- more than 17 million immigrants in that span. And to keep its working--age population at 1995 levels, the country would need 609,000 migrants annually, also for 50 years, or more than 33 million immigrants in all.

That's not going to happen; Japan may be changing, but at nowhere near the rate necessary to save itself. The country, which is likely to be overtaken this year by China as the world's second-largest economy, seems to have made its choice.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which won last summer's elections, has plenty to say about population decline, but the word "immigration" appears nowhere in its manifesto. And the government has taken an enforcement-only approach toward immigrants and foreign workers, rounding up undocumented workers for deportation but making no attempt to develop a coherent vision of whom to admit and how to accommodate them. "The biggest crisis," an official at the Japan Business Federation told me, "is that the government has no sense of crisis."

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