Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Time for mass immigration

As an author and illustrator of juvenile literature, I often visit schools to read my books to children. I am always amazed at the small number of students at Japanese schools. One elementary school I visited recently was built to accommodate 400 students, but there were only 10 children enrolled.

Japan is facing a crisis. The fertility rate is now less than two children per woman. At the same time, low fertility is accelerating the aging of the Japanese population. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, people aged 65 or older accounted for 22.7 percent as of October 2009, while those aged up to 14 represented only 13.3 percent of the total. If current trends continue, the population is expected to decrease by one-third by 2050, with nearly 50 percent of those being elderly -- an "impossible" situation for maintaining the health and pension systems.

Concern over these trends has sparked intense debate over the best policy to reverse them or mitigate their impact. So far, the policy debate has predominantly focused on encouraging more childbearing, especially among younger couples. But, many young men are increasingly reluctant to marry for financial reasons; women are choosing to stay single, or marry later and have fewer children. Isn't this policy unrealistic? Furthermore, the situation is perhaps more urgent than one that can be fixed by encouraging people to have more babies. It is already too late to try to increase fertility levels to offset the burden on the working population.

The United Nations estimates that Japan would need to admit 647,000 immigrants annually for the next 50 years in order to maintain an effective working population size, or face an annual drop in gross domestic product (GDP) of 7 percent. The Japanese government, however, severely restricts permanent immigration in all its forms. Japanese people are intensely zealous for keeping their supposedly "homogeneous" ethnic culture and deeply suspicious of the changes it would undergo in the event of mass immigration.

After my lecture on "The Importance of Promoting Multiculturalism in Japan" to a group of Japanese government officials the other day, a middle-aged woman stood up and argued: "We Japanese have always been proud of our nation as a mono-ethnic and mono-cultural society. Somehow, Japan becoming a multiethnic or multicultural society is wrong." This is not an uncommon view. Indeed, the majority of Japanese would likely agree that their society is defined by a unique Japanese identity, one based on a deep-rooted ethnicity.

To respond positively to the major demographic transition and maintain its vitality in the 21st century, Japan cannot avoid the task of creating an environment that offers equal opportunities for people of various ethnic groups. In brief, this means coming up as soon as possible with an effective immigration policy that will accept foreigners as potential Japanese citizens. Achieving greater cultural diversity within Japan has the power of broadening the scope of the nation's intellectual creativity and enhancing its social vitality and global competitiveness.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: June 4, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)

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