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Will Japan Open its Borders?

Friday, April 1, 2005 Posted: 11:49 AM JST

Japan is getting its nose shoved into an issue it has been trying to avoid for centuries: immigration. The past decades the country's birthrate has plummeted. It is now one of the lowest in the world. Simultaneously Japan has the longest life expectancy in the world. A dangerous mix.

It will soon have to accept the fact that it has only three choices to keep its economy alive: more babies, bringing more women and elderly into the work force, or importing people. The first option is probably no option at all, the second will be tough and the last one even tougher. Immigration still makes most Japanese feel terribly uneasy.

They are in trouble. A report by the Japanese Ministry of Justice this month asks the cabinet to "firmly consider" importing unskilled labor.

Demographic figures released by Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research predict that Japan's population will dive to a mere 100 million people in 2050. That is down from 127 million last year. Immigration is virtually non-existent. In 2003 Japan counted fewer than 2 million "foreigners", just 1.5 percent of the population.

Half of this number are actually Koreans who were born in Japan, but have never taken Japanese citizenship. In any other country they would be considered full-fledged nationals, the majority doesn't even speak Korean, so they can hardly be counted as "immigrants". That means the true figure is only about 1 million. Pretty sad for a country with an economy that is still the second-largest in the world.

The predicted crisis has probably already started. Officially the demograhic dive is not supposed to start until about 2007 (see chart), but many observers believe the decline started in the mid 90s. It has been hidden because the struggling economy didn't need any additional workers.

However, the economy is finally improving. But the demographics are worsening. Last year's birthrate was the worst on record. Soon a tiny number of working people will have to support a huge army of pensioners. The Japanese Ministry of Justice now believes that immigration is the country's only chance to ward off this demographic crisis.

So far Japanese politicians aren't listening. The issue is totally of their radar screens and there are no discussions going on to prepare the country for the inevitable. This may set the country up for some serious social mayhem.

A recent survey shows that 33 percent of the Japanese are even against a foreigner taking a job that no Japanese wants to do. Survey after survey shows a great fear of foreign crime.

Last year the Japanese Immigration Bureau set up a site where Japanese could anonymously inform on suspicious foreigners. They could give reasons like "causing anxiety" or "causing nuisance to the neighbourhood".

During a council meeting of leaders of foreign communities in Hyogo Prefecture I asked Governor Toshizo Ido to protest this obvious disregard of human rights. After he sent his petition against the "snitch site", the only local government to do so in Japan, he received a barrage of complaints from citizens. Most of them were clearly worried about foreign crime.

The reality of course is that there is virtually no difference between the crime rates of Japanese citizens and immigrants as activist Aruodo Debito has repeatedly proven.

The question is, will Japan's politicians, and its media, have the courage, foresight and ability to rectify this skewed public image so the country can get ready for the influx of highly needed workers. And... will they be in time?

Keywords: national_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
Stone Bridge Press

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