Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012

WEEK 3

'Only immigrants can save Japan'


Special to The Japan Times

Japan as we know it is doomed.

News photo
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." COURTESY OF HIDENORI SAKANAKA

Only a revolution can save it.

What kind of revolution?

Japan must become "a nation of immigrants."

That's a hard sell in this notoriously closed country. Salesman-in-chief — surprisingly enough — is a retired Justice Ministry bureaucrat named Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the ministry's Tokyo Immigration Bureau and current executive director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a private think tank he founded in 2007.

It's an unlikely resume for a sower of revolution. Sakanaka clearly sees himself as such. His frequent use of the word "revolution" suggests a clear sense of swimming against the current. Other words he favors — "utopia," "panacea" — suggest the visionary.

"Japan as we know it" is in trouble on many fronts. The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent tsunami and nuclear disasters, struck a nation whose economy had been stagnant for 20 years while politicians fiddled and government floundered. But that's not Sakanaka's point. He is focused on demographics. "Japan," he said in a recent telephone interview, "is on the brink of collapse."

The nation's population peaked at 128 million in 2004 and has been in accelerating decline since. By 2050, the government's National Institute of Population and Social Policy Research estimates, 40 percent of Japanese people will be 65 or over. Twenty-three percent already are, as against a mere 13 percent aged 15 and under.

The birthrate is 1.3 children per woman, one of the world's lowest. The population is set to drop to 90 million within 50 years; to 40 million within a century.

No nation, barring war or plague, has ever shrunk at such a pace, and as for aging, there are no historical precedents of any kind. The nation needs a fountain of youth.

Sakanaka claims to have found one.

Japan, he said, "must welcome 10 million immigrants between now and 2050."

"A nation of immigrants" is not something Japan has ever aspired to be. For 250 years from the early 17th century it was quite literally a "closed country" (sakoku). Entering or leaving without special and rare authority were capital offenses. Then came the armed incursion of U.S. Navy "Black Ships" in 1853 — which led, within 15 years, to the pell-mell pursuit of Westernization.

Japan's foreign-born population today, higher than ever before at 1.7 percent of the total, compares with an average 10 percent in other developed nations — 12 percent in the United States. Refugees have been cold-shouldered to an extent widely regarded as disgraceful.

Yet this is the country of which Sakanaka wrote (in an essay last year titled "Paths to a Japanese-style Immigrant Nation"): "A new Japanese civilization will realize a multi-ethnic community, which no nation has ever achieved, and, in due course, it will stand out as one of the main pillars of world civilization."

He is right that no nation has ever achieved it. Even the U.S., which is proud to call itself a "nation of immigrants," has never been free from racial and cultural frictions. He is right, too, to maintain that a Japan that does achieve it will be "new" — so new, in fact, that a reader might reasonably wonder: Will it still be Japan?

Here is where talk of revolution comes in. "In Japan in the age of population decline," Sakanaka writes, "there is a need for a social revolution equal to that of the Meiji Restoration" — the modernizing and Westernizing revolution that began in 1868. "The very fundamentals of our way of life, the ethnic composition of our country and our socio-economic system will have to be reconsidered and a new country constructed."

To those Japanese — the vast majority — who desire no such national reconstruction, Sakanaka pleads, "I believe the (re-creation) of Japan as an immigrant nation is the ultimate reform, which will serve as a panacea for the challenges facing the country."

Changing tone, he delivers a quasi-ultimatum: "The Japanese should become aware that they live in an era of a severe population crisis and that it is no longer possible to live in peace in a closed world only among Japanese nationals. There is no way for Japan to survive but to build a society of living with immigrants and hoisting a new flag: 'Immigrants Welcome.' "

Other thinkers hoist other flags. In 2008, Saitama University economist Goro Ono published a book titled "Accepting Foreign Workers Spoils Japan."

The findings of an Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll of 3,000 readers in 2010 suggest Ono is closer to the popular mood than Sakanaka. Asked if they would accept large-scale immigration in the interests of reviving Japan, 65 percent of respondents said no; 26 percent yes. ("More in the yes camp than I would have expected," Sakanaka quipped during our interview.)

Once Japan actually did set off down Sakanaka's road — only to hastily double back via Ono's. That was in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the bubble economy was expanding to its imminent bursting point and Japan's labor-hungry factories were working full tilt. The nation's first-ever mass-immigration program welcomed some 300,000 Japanese-Brazilians to plug the gap.

Officials who had had assumed the Brazilians' Japanese ancestry would smooth the transition were soon disillusioned. The Brazilian culture of exuberance clashed with the native culture of restraint. The language barrier proved hard to breach. Kids with minimal Japanese dropped out of school; some turned to crime.

A salsa boom in Japan became a symbol of the cultural cross-fertilization some had hoped would come more naturally, but by 2009 the experiment was over. The government offered to pay migrants' air fares back to Brazil — if they agreed in writing not to try to return to Japan to work.

Ono's solution to the challenges posed by depopulation and the aging society is to adapt to them — by fitting the able-bodied old into the labor force, and by developing robots and other labor-saving technology.

Sakanaka, too, in his 2005 book "Nyukan Senki" ("Immigration Battle Diary"), had envisaged something similar. He called it the "small Japan" option. It would turn Japan into a sort of 21st-century pre-Meiji backwater. Life would be less frenetic but possibly deeper and more meaningful.

He's changed his mind. In his April 2012 book, "Jinko Hokai to Imin Kaikaku" ("Population Breakdown and the Immigrant Revolution") he compares the sluggish pace of reconstruction since March 2011 with the rapid recovery from much greater destruction after World War II.

"Even before 3/11," he writes, "it was apparent in numerous regions that the Japanese on their own could not manage the economy and society. So much the more so now. There is no way the Japanese alone can rebuild regional industries destroyed in the disaster."

Hence his plan for an "immigration society" involving an organized evolution — or revolution — in which the newcomers would not be mere guest workers or guest students. "A country undergoing population decline does not need temporary foreign workers," he writes. "It needs immigrants."

They would come to stay — as Japanese-resident, Japanese-educated, Japanese-employed Japanese citizens, no different in their rights, opportunities and responsibilities from the native-born. And they would come from all over the world not just a handful of countries, Sakanaka stresses.

"This is a grandiose project that will transform the Japanese archipelago into a miniature of the world community," he declares, "a utopia to which people from all around the world dream of migrating."

It sounds fantastic, and in fact, Sakanaka acknowledges, would require legislation now lacking — anti-discrimination laws above all. Ultimately, he believes, an influx of highly skilled foreign nationals trained in Japan will be the salvation of several tottering industries.

Agriculture, for example. Does agriculture have a viable future otherwise? He thinks not and offers figures to prove it: 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.

"People are starting to understand," he told The Japan Times, "that this can't continue." He added, a little ruefully, "I can't exactly say that the plan I've been advocating over the past three years has generated much enthusiasm." In fact, "Intellectuals and politicians basically ignore me."

Revolutionaries learn to live with that, firm in the conviction that their time will come.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.