“Only immigrants can save Japan”

Face of change: Hidenori Sakanaka, the former Justice Ministry bureaucrat and Tokyo Immigration Bureau chief fears the nation is on the brink of collapse, and says “we must welcome 10 million immigrants between now and 2050.”

by Robert Moorehead

“Only immigrants can save Japan”

Hidenori Sakanaka, the former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, is back in the Japan Times calling for revolution in Japan. This revolution involves opening the door to a much larger influx of immigrants into Japanese society. While I agree with Sakanaka that immigration would bring Japan a much-needed influx of workers, entrepreneurs, farmers, etc, his calls tend to fall on deaf ears. What’s the right analogy here? Is he more Chicken Little or Don Quixote? Neither is very flattering, no matter how on target Sakanaka might be.

The article gives one example of an area in which immigration might help boost the Japanese economy. “Japan’s farming population declined by 750,000 to 2.6 million in the five years to 2010; their average age is 65.8. Fisheries and manufacturing, he says, face similar attrition.” What will happen to Japan’s farming industry when the current generation of elderly farmers retires or passes on? Who will tend the fields? The same can be said for the fishing industry.

Generations of youth have moved from the countryside to the cities in search of greater work opportunities. Even in the cities, young Japanese workers have turned away from low-level factory jobs, creating the opening (and need) for foreign labor. To compensate for declines in the fishing industry, rural areas prostituted their lands to Japan’s power industry for the construction of nuclear power plants. Now, between a rock and a hard place, these areas need to decide which is worse, continued risks of meltdowns caused by earthquakes and tsunami, or having foreigners in their midst working and investing in the fishing industry.

Critics of Sakanaka’s plans rightly note that large-scale immigration to Japan would change Japanese society. However, large-scale population declines, combined with a rapidly aging society and few employment opportunities for Japan’s youth will also change Japanese society. Change is the constant. Deal with it.

2 thoughts on ““Only immigrants can save Japan”

  1. Japan is to be congratulated for not allowing “a much larger influx of immigrants into Japanese society.” The admirable Japanese character would be diluted with large number of immigrants. If low-skilled, low wage, immigrants are admitted to provide low cost help, then those immigrants will also tend to have larger families. In time, they will take over more of the middle and upper income jobs, vote according to their ethnic values, and put higher demands on social services.

    The size of Japan’s population should be decided by the Japanese birthrate, not the birthrate of immigrants.

    I agree that Japan’s farming population is aging. That is happening in America, also. But farm consolidation can lead to increased efficiency and output, as has happened here, and continues to happen. The aging farm population is no reason to open the flood gates to immigrants.

  2. The idea that immigrants to Japan would assimilate, naturalize, become upwardly mobile, and engage in the rights afforded to them as citizens sounds like a good idea. (Remember that mere birth in Japan does not afford one citizenship. Rather, immigrants would have to naturalize.) The claim that immigrants would do so “according to their ethnic values” is unfounded fear-mongering.

    The further claim that these upwardly mobile, naturalized citizens would put higher demands on social services is also specious. Higher demands than the already aging society, where nearly 1 in 4 people is aged 65 or above, and where over the next 50 years that ratio will rise to 2 in 5? Tax-paying residents with jobs would be more of a burden than retired elderly on pensions? These immigrants would contribute more tax dollars to Japanese society, start new businesses, hire more workers, and contribute to the economic and social vitality of the country.

    The admirable Japanese character you refer to has never been built on homogeneity, and it is more resilient than you give it credit for being. It’s also not static. Japanese society has undergone tremendous change over the last 150 years (Meiji Restoration, opening up of the country, rise of the Emperor and a colonial empire, World War II, defeat in the war, occupation, democratization, industrialization, not to mention repeated natural disasters that have killed tens of thousands) so why hold back change now? Why would this influx of immigrants threaten the society more than the last influx, in the early 20th century? This isn’t the first time Japan’s opened its doors.

    Farm consolidation in Japan would replace the long-standing practice of family farming with greater corporate control–this too would represent a significant departure from current practices. As I wrote, change is constant.

    Immigrants aren’t a flood. They’re people, and they are contributing to the strengthening of Japanese society. I’d have a hard time convincing my students that their country must diminish in size and stature, and that they and their future children need to have increasingly fewer opportunities for work and a growing tax burden, just to maintain someone’s notion of “Japanese character.” (Precisely whose character this represents is unclear, since each generation sees the world differently. Is it their grandparents? Their parents? Theirs?)

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