Arama They Didn't

8:55 pm - 10/28/2012

Hidenori Sakanaka: 'Only immigrants can save Japan'

Japan as we know it is doomed. 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.


Discussion: Opinions Arama? Which would come first, better conditions for working women and mothers or influxes of immigrants? Would you go to Japan to live and what job would you take up?
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dippz 29th-Oct-2012 01:05 am (UTC)
Definitely better conditions for women should be their priority first........

asaphira_sachi 29th-Oct-2012 01:08 am (UTC)
Well, I think he's generally in the right direction, as long as he keeps in mind welcoming new immigrants should also mean welcoming new ideas (i.e. like taking stigma off of working mothers). If immigrants are also conditioned to work as they are now, nothing will change much.

Edited at 2012-10-29 01:09 am (UTC)
insanelampshade Better working conditions required.29th-Oct-2012 01:15 am (UTC)
As someone in the IT industry I wouldn't want to work in Japan (or the US for that matter)... long hours, unpaid overtime, little to no holiday. If their employment laws ever match the EU then maybe.

Does he want skilled or unskilled immigrant workers? Masses of unskilled labour is more likely to cause friction with the local population ("Why can't a Japanese person do that job?" etc.), but they are far easier to attract than skilled labour.

Edited at 2012-10-29 01:17 am (UTC)
glimmeringneon Re: Better working conditions required.31st-Oct-2012 02:09 am (UTC)
As a North American, I find the only "logical" working standards in the European Union are that of Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

All the other EU countries have ridiculous amounts of benefits that they are in debt and thus you've got Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal filing for bankruptcy, then you've got Germany and France asking Canada and the USA to help pay off that debt, and borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (which is mostly used by developing countries to assist in economic development...)

Northern European countries such as Norway and Denmark aren't off the hook either, they are expected to fall out of the top 50 economies by 2050. Let me just say this: Europe had a "head start" with industrialization (and development, much of Asia and Africa was under oppressive colonial rule) but you're going to have to work harder to keep up your high standard of living and make sacrifices because Asia and Africa are going to do everything it has in its power to catch up and dominate within the next 40 years.

Edited at 2012-10-31 02:13 am (UTC)
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xanithofdragons 29th-Oct-2012 02:03 am (UTC)
I think influxes of immigrants is such a far out idea for Japan that they'd probably try to help working women first. There's also that idea about incorporating more of the elderly into the work force in the other viewpoint mentioned in the article.
awkward_as_heck 29th-Oct-2012 02:21 am (UTC)
Honestly if they help out working women the problem will mostly resolve itself. Sure they'll have the problem of the elderly population but insentivise working and they'll do it, skills won't be a problem, ever more people are computer literate and they'd solve the problem of lonely grnadparents overnight.
awkward_as_heck 29th-Oct-2012 02:10 am (UTC)
For such a big idea it seems to not really account for the big picture. Sure agriculture, fishing and manufacturing is in decline but Japanese people pride themselves on homegrown produce. In hard times they'll probably need homegrown industries. The problem is the population is not picking up these jobs.

Their infastructure also needs work. Some of Hokkaido and quite a few outlying areas have severely underdeveloped transport infasturcture, people move away from these areas and from farming and similar industries because there is nothing there and no easy or cheap access to places with things.

The government needs to move on from naval gazing and stagnacy and deal with the very real problems in front of them rather than maintaining the status quo and hoping the problem will go away.

The need to make it viable to have children, for mothers to be able to return to work and move away from endless long working hours because it does little apart from make it hard for people to have a life, meet people and have kids.

Unskilled workers will not help if they are going to have mass immigration, they need to bring people over who can contribute to Japan's trditional industries and they need to make traditional industries a viable lifestyle for Japanese people.

Also, what happens after the population drops? This is a problem facing a lot of countries where the elderly population is top heavy. The population should correct sooner or later. What needs to happen is long term plans that encourage a sustainable population and a concerted effort planning for the generation who will have to work through the top heavy elderly generation.
kazuya_raba 29th-Oct-2012 04:25 am (UTC)
I second this. I live on the island with the highest birthrate in Japan, and the reason that people reproduce is because they can afford to. Their way of life is more self-sustained in that they grow their own food, everyone works at the city hall if they do not own their own farm or business, including women. Grandparents provide childcare support and people have time to be people. But on the mainland people can't afford to have families. Prices are sky high from rent to milk to entertainment and families are a lot more spread out than on the island. Not to mention ridiculous work hours and commute times that make it difficult to have a life. Hours that really aren't a reflection of productivity but rather of affected social expectations.

Japan has plenty of things they need to fix to ensure that the people they already have can thrive. Right now, inviting more people who will face other cultural/racial issues upon their arrival to rebuild their nation is not the answer. In the words of Booker T. Washington, "caste your bucket down where you are!".
chibi_hime 29th-Oct-2012 02:29 am (UTC)
While it would be great if they made working as an immigrant easier, taking care of women and working mothers comes first. How can they expect women to choose between a career or raising a family? The way the current system is set up, that is a decision that needs to be made and that is a shame.

About the working in Japan thing, from my experience, working and living in Japan as a foreigner took a lot of adjusting. The insane unpaid over-time hours and the intense dislike for vacation time (even when it was sick days) made it really difficult. On top of that, there are still people who get down right hostile when seeing a foreigner in Japan. While I'm glad there are people acknowledging that immigrants are a great source for the economy, there still is a lot to be done before they get the results they are looking for.
helenmaldon 29th-Oct-2012 03:25 am (UTC)
Thanks for this post, very interesting!

I think this kind of plan would be successful only if the Japanese government genuinely wanted to incorporate new groups or people into the nation and not just exploit new groups of low-paid laborers while giving them few legal protections or rights (the way we tend to treat new labor groups in the US...)

If there was a real government initiative to protect and extend the rights of all workers, then I think that would also have to include making conditions better for working women, regardless of ethnicity or birthplace.

But I guess hoping for those things to happen, either in Japan or in the US, is considered "revolutionary" and a "utopia" right now
fauxparadiso 29th-Oct-2012 03:42 am (UTC)
They also need to work on making other cities attractive for immigrants. There's such a push for everything Tokyo when it comes to overseas promotion, which is not going to work for most immigrants due to tight housing availability and sky-high prices. Unless they're interested in the country, I doubt many foreigners could name multiple cities in Japan unlike countries like the U.S., China, Australia etc.
cyberdudey 29th-Oct-2012 06:12 am (UTC)
yah.. the cost of living is very expensive..
that is one of the main reasons why some of the working force do not consider having a family because of the expenses.. that maybe also.. the main reason why their population is low..
lolufailhard 29th-Oct-2012 04:16 am (UTC)
defo better conditions for women should come first, then they can being thinking about ways to attract immigrants.... lol
baboona 29th-Oct-2012 04:31 am (UTC)
anything to avoid giving women rights and better working conditions
cyberdudey 29th-Oct-2012 06:06 am (UTC)
for those whp dreamt to live in Japan.. it would be a benifit for them.. but there might be a doqnside effect since not all Japanese people welcome all foreigners.. if you are a business partner or a client they would treat you well but id you're not it might be a bad (maybe.. since Japanese people are very business minded..)

I hope they innovate something on the working moms... that they could be a good source of working force..

Japan is looked up to as one of the most creative countries in the world and self sustaining when it comes to their economy...

and... IF the cost of living expenses were low or resonable enough... their people would be encouraged to create their own family... their working force are too much pre-occupied by their expenses that they strive to earn and save more for themselves...

they (the government) should think something that their will benefit most rather than welcome immigrants or else their beautiful and classic tradition might be innovated.

you know.. they might end up like my country... just asking for US support everytime we are in deep sheesh.. :(

Edited at 2012-10-29 06:36 am (UTC)
go_chan2011 1st-Nov-2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
"they might end up like my country... just asking for US support everytime we are in deep sheesh..."

Ahhh been victim of that.
__planitbremix 29th-Oct-2012 06:49 am (UTC)
Well if that wasn't obvious,but Japan has a long way to go before it can become a country that welcomes immigrants. Working in Japan for almost a year, in my opinion, I feel people in Japan are not ready for immigrants. Example? When they brought over the Brazilian-Japanese, that sure went well,...
If Japan wants immigrants that means in Japan they would have to either become:
a Bilingual society or actually employ foreigners,both which is mind blowing for them outside of certain structures.
My fiance is the only person who can speak English in the store he works at. Its very helpful but sadly since he hasn't grown up around different English accents it can be a challenge dealing with a non western sounding English person. Ironically the city I am currently staying in, I have seen more foreigners than last year, just the other day while shopping I saw an east indian girl wearing a Japanese school girl uniform,so immigrants are coming here regardless but I doubt its in mass droves and who knows for how long they will live here. Also the working conditions is something that still baffles me. I hate feeling like the customers I work for are holier than I, and these long hours need to go for both students and workers! Also,the only way most japanese children can get more exposed to foreigners is through learning English and even that's limited, Im not saying America is better,but I never thought I could miss it so much until I came here, and I moved to Texas for God sake!Gimme my 8-5 job,holidays off,and time to enjoy my life! And america comes next to Japan in the most over-worked countries in Japan which is even sadder!
phililen3 29th-Oct-2012 09:15 am (UTC)
Funny thing is I am doing a paper on women's rights right now...
cugami 29th-Oct-2012 01:37 pm (UTC)
As a woman, I refuse to fly to Japan and live there.

Sakanaka makes sense and he does speak of an ideal world. But before Japan can even look remotely inviting for the rest of the world, it needs to figure out how to deal with its culture of bullying, and women as secondary citizens among other things. As interesting and entertaining the products from Japan can be, the "modern" way of life there is too problematic for an ordinary person, let alone a foreigner.

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