Many years ago before I came to Japan, I was taking part in a short-term intensive Japanese study facility to prepare for my coming trip. One of the students ahead of me in the class went a few weeks before my cohort and I. We sent him a letter asking, “What’s Japan like?” In his letter back to us, he wrote, “There are a lot of Japanese people here.” We read the letter and thought “あたりまえ (atarimae)” or “of course, there are.” Yet, when I finally arrived in Japan, I saw what he meant.
In America, in your average large city, you will see a pretty even cross section of American demographics. The largest group will be Caucasian, followed by Latino Americans, followed by either Asian or African Americans (depending on where you are). Needless to say, in nearly any fairly large city, you will see a very diverse group of individuals. I was shocked when I came to Japan. There are a lot of Japanese people here.
Japan is one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. Because of its isolationist history and island status, it has never been a refuge for people fleeing their own countries. Foreigners make up less than two percent of the total population, and a good chunk of that two percent are Korean nationals (most of whom were born and raised in Japan and often only speak Japanese). In the chart above, you can see the 5 largest non-Japanese groups in Japan. Japan has one of the smallest rates of foreign nationals living in its borders and Japan is very proud of this. But this homogeneity might be the very cause of destruction for this wonderful nation.
Japan is in serious trouble. Throughout many of the advanced countries like Britain, Germany, and America, the percentage of elderly is tipping toward crisis levels. But America and the European nations have a release valve for these types of socio-economic pressures: immigration. Most advanced countries can easily replace elderly people who leave the workforce with immigrants. But Japan does not seem to have this option, not because of not having any ability to do so, but due to a lack of will.
Japan’s population is shrinking at a precipitous rate. Japan’s population is currently around 130 million, but it is projected to fall to a mere 87 million by 2060, and the working (taxable) population will fall by over half! Now, in a world facing overpopulation, this might not seem like such a big problem, but for Japan, this is truly dire. In 2060 when the population is about half of what it is now, Japan will be a relatively nice place to live, but it is that intervening time that is the big problem. Why?
Try to recall your basic high school civics class. Why did humans give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of the settled, organized civilization model? Collective security and collective economy. Our ancestors realized that by setting up governmental systems, people could be divided into sectors. Some people grow the food, others make weapons, others build. All the people work together, and in return, the state takes care of them through the collection of taxes. With the rise of socialism in the 19th to 20th centuries, the state began to take on more and more. We began to entrust our futures on the state with social security programs. We pay the state through our monthly incomes for all our working life, and when it comes time for us to leave the workforce, the state rewards us with a pension that will allow us to be self-sufficient until we leave this mortal coil.
These systems were set-up after the World Wars in the midst of a giant population boom, and in the middle of a great time in the world economy. Japan, thanks in large part to American investment, was riding high. With this previously unimaginable level of personal wealth, Japanese people began to change. More and more people moved to the cities, leaving their parents’ farms for higher paying jobs in the giant conglomerates. Japanese business culture rewarded the almost masochistic working practices of the post-World War II generation with hefty bonuses and pensions. The basic social contract was that the worker would devote himself to the company and pay a hefty amount of salary to social programs, in return, the company basically guaranteed him lifelong employment and stability. This was an offer hard to reject.
Yet, with improvements in economics and a more liberal society, came some unforeseen long-term issues. In the past, when Japan was more of an agricultural economy, families had an average of five children. It takes many hands to take care of all the work on a farm. But lower birth mortality rates, more scenes to birth control, and no need to have children to work, the post-World War II generation had much fewer children, often only one or two. Look at the chart above. You can see a population boom in the mid-20th century, but in the early 2000s, the birth and death rates cross over. If continued, this will create an “X” – meaning more people die each year than are born.
So this gets back to that original question, “Why is this such a big deal?” Taxes. If the population continues to shrink, the population of elderly people (out of the workforce) increases but is not renewed. Pension systems require new blood. They pay out pensions to pensioners out of the money that those working today pay. It is like a bank. When you put money into a checking or savings account, you allow the bank to use that cash for their own investments, and in return, they pay you an interest rate. But, if the bank has no more people who are opening accounts or putting money into accounts, and at the same time has a lot of people trying to take money out, they are in serious trouble. We call this a depression.
Japan is like that bank. Each year, there are fewer and fewer people putting money in the bank, but more and more people are making withdrawals. It is not a matter of time before Japan can’t pay pensions or any of its other bills. When that happens, “depression” will not be a strong enough word to describe what will happen to Japan.
Many other advanced countries face this same problem, but they alleviate it through immigration. There are always hundreds of thousands of people willing to come into these countries, work, pay into the system, and eventually be beneficiaries. America has done this throughout its history many times. So, why does Japan not resolve to such an obvious solution?
I had an interesting discussion about this with my Japanese wife many years ago. I laid out this whole problem for her and explained to her that logically, the only solution was for Japan to accept more immigrants from America. Her response, “I don’t want Japan to be like America.” What she meant by that was that she did not want the ethnic face of Japan to change. She did not want a “multicultural Japan.” At first, this struck me as racist. But as I have come to understand Japan better, I understand this a bit better.
Japanese people value “和 (wa).” This single character is particularly tricky to translate into English. Wa can be translated as “peace” but not in the hippie “world peace” kind of way, but more like calmness and stability. If you are riding on the train and everyone is quietly reading or keeping to themselves, and suddenly one person sneezes, or their phone rings, you can feel the wa being disturbed. Most of Japanese politeness and society is centered around maintaining this peace and balance. Foreigners, by their very presence, upset the wa.
If you have ever been to a smaller rural area of Japan, you will probably know what I’m talking about. My first few months in Japan, I felt like some sort of celebrity. I would enter a room and everyone would go quiet, and every eye would turn to look at me. Then there would be a short awkward silence, followed by a mass of chattering about the “gaijin (foreigner).” At first, I rather enjoyed it. After a few months, I was totally sick of it. Now, I barely notice it. I can’t tell you how many times I have ridden a crowded bus wherein every seat was taken, except for the one right next to me. Once again, is this just racism? Well, yes and no.
The racism problem in Japan is somewhat more complex than it may seem. In the west, we tend to think of racism as treating someone as a lesser individual because of their race. That is not exactly what happens in Japan. Japanese people tend to love foreigners, particularly Europeans and Americans. As an American in Japan, I am actually looked up to by many people and often put on a higher pedestal. A kind of reverse racism. But here is the rub. Japanese love foreigners, but they believe that foreigners are unable to fit in with Japanese society. Take the Korean nationals who have been living in Japan for nearly 100 years. There is absolutely nothing to set them apart from Japanese people, yet they are not accepted as being Japanese.
If I were married to another foreign woman, and we had foreign children in Japan, only spoke Japanese to them, sent them to Japanese schools, and tried everything to fit in with Japanese society, our children would still be referred to as “gaijin.” This is not because of any animosity. My children and I would probably not be denied any basic civil rights, no real racism in the sense that we usually consider it. We would just be “different.” The concept of wa in Japanese society forbids the inclusion of those that do not fit in with the society’s conception of itself.
To be completely honest, I don’t know. Recent polls show that more and more people are willing to accept immigration. But would they feel the same way when they start seeing the demographics of their neighborhood changing? We have seen the rise of more xenophobic groups in many of the countries that have practiced immigration, and I am pretty sure the same thing would happen here.
Would Japanese culture be crushed by the weight of unwashed masses? Hardly. I tend to think the opposite would happen. I think that American culture was formed by immigration. As humans, we have the urge to be a part of a group and differentiate ourselves. So when a new minority group pops up near us, we emphasize our differences and what makes us special. I think that if Japan opened its doors to immigration status, you would see a marked rise in traditional Japanese culture. Japanese youths would become more interested in their own history and culture. There would be a rise in right-wing groups, but that is normal in this situation and not entirely negative. There might be a “Japanese Pride” type of movement.
In other words, if Japan did open its doors to immigration, Japan would become even more Japanese. Would there be a lot of changes? Of course. Crime rates would probably go up, and you might see a lot more racial tension, but we have to understand that these are common problems for countries going through this process. The problem is the next step. In most societies, after the first generation of tension and conflict, the second generation proves themselves true nations of the country and most of those tensions dissipate. But can Japan ever accept foreigners as Japanese? I don’t know.
Japan faces a difficult and unknown future. The easiest way to solve its problems also happens to be the solution that is most culturally abhorrent. Please don’t get me wrong, Japan is a great place to live as a foreigner. If you come to live here, you will be hard-pressed to find more caring and accepting people. That is if you stay here for a short time. If you plan on living here and “becoming Japanese,” you face an uphill battle. You will almost never be met with any animosity, only indifference. Japan is the most unique country I know in that respect. But I worry for its future. Only time will tell…