Thursday, May 26th, 2022 14:24:41

Choice Before An Ageing Japan

Updated: October 8, 2011 11:02 am

During a visit last fortnight to Tokyo at the invitation of Keizai Koh Center to attend a symposium on “Japan-India relations in the new Asia-Pacific era”, I was made aware of two trends that we Indians will find hard to imagine. One is that in Japan today, there are very few medical students who are specialising in pediatrics. The second is that in huge department chains in Tokyo the space meant for kids and infants is being converted for other uses. All this is precisely because of the fact that with each passing year, Japan is having fewer and fewer babies.

At the moment, there are only 7.31 births/1,000 population in Japan. Total fertility rate happens to be 1.21 children per woman, among the lowest anywhere. And this entry gives a figure for the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age. But that is not exactly happening. Parents in Japan do not realise the fact that unless there is a rate of two children per woman, the country can never have a stable replacement rate for a population.

One of the most urbanised and highly developed countries, Japan has nearly universal family planning, with condoms and legal abortions the main forms of birth control. There are a number of factors that have contributed to the trend toward small families: high education, devotion to raising healthy children, late marriage, increased participation of women in the labour force, small living spaces, education about the problems of overpopulation, and the high costs of child education. No wonder why Japan today is the fastest-ageing society on Earth. It is the first big country in history to have started shrinking rapidly in terms of population. If the present trend continues, in the next 40 years Japan’s population, currently 127 million, is expected to fall by 38 million. And, by 2050 four out of ten Japanese will be over 65.

This has also meant that Japan’s economic growth-rate is now extremely vulnerable. There is a decline in its working-age population, those aged 15-64. It may be noted that after the World War II, it was the combination of a fast-growing labour force and the rising productivity of its famously industrious workers that made Japan the world’s second-largest economy. But now in an ageing Japan, the process is in reverse. China has already overtaken Japan. It is feared that the working-age population will shrink so quickly that by 2050 it will be smaller than what it was in 1950.

It is not that the Japanese are not aware of the impending crisis. In fact, the stream of business tycoons, government officials and academicians that I interacted with admitted the dangerous fallouts of the looming crisis, but they did not know how to change the things, with the young couples determined to continue with their existing lifestyle—work, earn and enjoy—that attaches least importance to parenthood. The young in the country overlook that one of the unfortunate side effects of ageing in Japan is that it will be they who suffer most. Although unemployment levels may remain among the lowest in the rich world, many of the jobs will be lowly ones. Besides, those working will have to pay increasingly more taxes to meet the growing expenditure on the social security for the aged (after all Japanese are also among those who live the longest, the average life-span of being 87 years).

It is against this background that many perceptible Japanese are talking of the alternative of encouraging immigration of skilled manpower into Japan to maintain the socio-economic balance in the country. One could mention here the policy proposals made by the Council on Population Education/Akashi Research Group (2010): “Seven Proposals for Japan to Reestablish its Place As a Respected Member of the International Community: Taking a Global Perspective on Japan’s Future.” One of the seven proposals is to enact an Immigration Law and establish an Immigration Agency. The Council notes, “Political will and leadership will be required to take the necessary action for the enactment of such a law.”

It may also be noted that in 2008, “the Project Team of 23 members of the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LPD), inside its Division of National Strategy” had issued a policy proposal entitled “Opening the Country to Human Resources! The Road to a Japanese-style Immigration State: Towards Building a Country where the World’s Youth Yearn to Immigrate”. This report did not by any means have unanimous backing of the LDP at the time, but it is interesting that it was published. But, since the Democratic Party took power in Japan in September 2009, there has been little movement on immigration issues in Japanese politics.

However, in the academic and business circles, immigration is a hot topic. Sakanaka Hidenori, an immigration official who served in the career Ministry of Justice for 35 years before retiring in 2005, has become well-known as an outspoken advocate for increased immigration. He calls for an inflow of 10 million new immigrants by 2050. In his words, “immigrants can save Japan,” but in order to attract them, Japan must become a multiethnic society and “a country that gives dreams to foreigners”.

And when one talks of immigration, I got the distinct impression that the Japanese business leaders and academicians would love to have more and more Indians, particularly engineers in Information and Technology, doctors and nurses (as care-givers to the old). In fact, drawing from the experience of the United States, many senior executives told me that if Indians could head Pepsi and Citi Bank, there is no reason why they should not be allowed to occupy top places in Japanese business. As it is, Japanese are working very hard to woo India and Indians not only owing to India’s growing economic clout of late but also the realisation of the dangers of China-factor. They have invested too much in China, a country the Japanese have never been comfortable with throughout history. As it is, more than one million Chinese, including students, are already there in Japan. In sharp contrast, the Indians only number about 23,000, roughly 60 per cent of them being IT professionals and their families. Whereas there are as many as 80,000 Chinese students in Japan, the total number of Indian students there is only 500.

Obviously, skilled Indians have a great future if Japan welcomes immigrants. But it is a big “if”. All told, historically and culturally, the Japanese are not comfortable with foreigners at all. For 90 per cent of their history they have lived isolated amongst themselves. They will definitely find it difficult to change things all of a sudden. How will they coexist with the immigrants? From the point of view of the potential immigrants, things are not easy either. Where exactly will they live, since language is a huge barrier in Japan? What jobs would they perform? What educational opportunities would be available for their children? What medical, pension and other social services would be made available? Would the Japanese people support such a policy?

All these are difficult questions, but questions that the likes of Sakanaka want to be solved satisfactorily. Sakanaka calls for creation of a “multiethnic Japan”. He says there must be a “social revolution,” featuring a fundamental shift of the national self-image from that of a homogeneous society to one that is multiethnic. “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. In terms of policies towards foreign nationals; if we are to solve our demographic malaise by becoming an immigrant country we must transform Japan into a ‘country that gives dreams to foreigners’; a place where young people from around the world would aspire to migrate to. We must make ‘a fair society, open to the world’ that guarantees everyone a fair chance, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, and judges people by their achievements. It is an essential requirement that this society comes to value diversity more than uniformity,” he argues.

In sum, sooner than later Japanese have to choose between a “small Japan” of shrinking population and economic decline, and a “big Japan” of growth, immigration and multiculturalism.

By Prakash Nanda

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