Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column: “Demography vs. Demagoguery”


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Demography vs. demagoguery: when politics, science collide

The Japan Times Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009

Last June, I attended a symposium sponsored by the German Institute of Japanese Studies. Themed “Imploding Populations: Global and Local Challenges of Demographic Change,” I took in presentations about health care, international and domestic migration, and life in a geriatric society.

Nothing surprising. The United Nations and our government acknowledged back in 2000 that Japan was heading for a demographic nightmare: a decreasing population, more old people than we can take care of, not enough young people to pay taxes, and economic decline.

Shocking, however, was the bad science: The presenting Japanese scientists were deliberately ignoring data fundamental to their field.

One panel was particularly odd. Panelists concluded, of course, that Japan must do something to stop this demographic juggernaut. A deputy director general at Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research even extrapolated that Japanese would be extinct by the year 3000! Yet the prospect of Japan’s decimation was no match for the fear of the foreign element.

During the Q-and-A, I asked: “Sir, only briefly in your presentation do you mention letting foreigners into Japan as a possible solution. However, you depict the process not as ‘immigration’ (imin), but as the ‘active use of the foreign working labor population’ (gaikokujin rodoryoku jinko no katsuyo). Why this rhetoric?”

The speaker hedged a bit, suddenly asserting that Japan is now a crowded island society. To paraphrase, “Immigration is not an option for our country. Inflows must be strictly controlled for fear of overpopulation.”

Afterward, one on one, I reconfirmed his intellectual disconnect. He further cited “a lack of national consensus” on the issue. When I asked if this was not a vicious circle (i.e. avoiding public discussion of the issue means no possible consensus), he gave a noncommittal answer. When I asked if “immigration” had become more of a political term than a scientific one, he begged off replying further.

Seems I opened Pandora’s Box. For the rest of the conference, whenever a Japanese presenter discussed every option for Japan’s future but immigration (they all avoided it), they played dodgeball with questions from other scientists. The ignorance was systematic — only one gave a begrudging acknowledgment that foreigners might be necessary for Japan’s future, although he personally couldn’t imagine it.

As a German expert of demographics told me afterward with consternation, “Demographics is the study of population changes: births, deaths, inflows and outflows. How can the Japanese demographers ignore inflows, even the possibility of them, in their assessments and still think they are doing good science?”

The reason is because this science in Japan has become riddled with politics. We know Japan’s population will continue to drop. Yet extinction still seems preferable to letting people in to stay.

Thus “immigration,” like “racial discrimination” (JBC, June 2), has become another taboo topic. One must not mention it by name, especially if you represent a government-funded think tank.

Then, when you have whole branches of government studiously ignoring the issue (even though last June the Health Ministry proposed training for companies to hire more foreigners, the former Aso Cabinet wouldn’t consider immigration as one of its top five priority plans), we can but say that the ostrich is in full burrow mode.

This is why I’m having trouble seeing any public policy — from the Nikkei workers being bribed to go home after two decades of contributions, to the proposed imports of Indonesian and Philippine nurses — as anything more than yet another “active use of the foreign working labor population.” Or, more honestly put, programs exploiting revolving-door employment regimes.

How seriously can we continue to tempt foreigners with the promise of a life in Japan in exchange for the best years of their labor productivity, only to revoke their livelihoods and pension contributions at the first opportunity, blaming globalization’s vicissitudes? How seriously can we make continued employment contingent upon a qualification hurdle (such as a tough nursing exam) that would challenge even native speakers?

This will only hurt us as a society in future. Again, we are on the cusp of a future in a society that can’t pay or take care of itself. It’s already happening in Japan’s depopulated countryside. Demographic science, if practiced properly, leads inevitably to that conclusion.

So here’s my reality check: Either way, people will come to Japan — even if it means they find an enfeebled or empty island to live in. With a new political administration in government, we might as well consider bringing in people now while we have more energy and choices.

Time out. Just like that guy at the think tank, time for me to be hit with a Debito-style question: “Who decides what Japan wants?”

Answer: We residents do, of course. But the people who represent or make decisions for us are not necessarily receptive enough (or all that developed as human beings) to understand one simple thing: People who appear to be different are not a threat. We cannot expect leaders and bureaucrats to guide us to a world they cannot envision.

So I will keep asking the Debito Questions, and argue that people like us are a viable alternative to Japan’s slow but inexorable decline. For Japan’s sake, we must save us from ourselves. I’ll suggest how next month.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month.

6 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column: “Demography vs. Demagoguery”

  • congratulations debito on such a brilliant article. If only we had more like you.

    Greetings from Kansai and keep on fighting the good fight.

  • This is probably one of the best I-couldn’t-have-said-it-better-myself articles that I have read in a long time. 🙂

    The sad part is the fact that despite that many foreigners can see the benefits to the Japanese people as a whole by signing things such as the Hauge convention or letting foreign immigrants in, it doesn’t mean anything unless it comes from a Japanese born rather than a foreigner.

    Along those same lines, the West has done the same thing for anything that has come for the orient. Unless it is in some way grounded to western society, oriental ideas/things/etc. have little to no meaning until they do…

    In more simple terms, I think we are simply seeing some reverse orientalism. The world as a whole, not just Japan, needs to grow past the ゙whole us and the other゙thinking.

    — Yes, as do you. I’m not a foreigner, asshole.

  • While I agree that immigration is an important variable that must be considered and certainly thrown into demographic assessments, I’m not sure I am 100% convinced that immigration is the answer/only answer to Japan’s myriad population concerns. I can’t speak to 1000 years in the future but I’m going to take a wait and see attitude on the extinction by 3000 estimate. I think an ecological/demographical homeostasis of some sort will be reached at some point even if it means a Japan that looks radically different than today’s.

    The attitude towards and treatment of immigrants is another issue of concern.

    This being said, I encourage and support progressive immigration and human rights policies.

    — And on off-color days like these, I support Senator Bulworth when he says, “All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody ’til they’re all the same color.”

  • Just saw the BBC World report on the DPJ’s allowance to encourage women having more kids. The surprising thing for me about it was the way the report mentioned that immigration wasn’t an option and that Japan seemed to have no choice but to encourage breeding; that Japan is opposed to immigration as a done deal, that it is not subject to discussion, that it seems to be not on the agenda.

    To my mind this goes to the heart about many issues simultaneously. I found it fascinating that a reporter could write off immigration like that. As a reforming “journalist” (actually my main last job was mainly recycling corporate press releases with a patina of journalistic conceit) I do have strong issues with how quazi-government organizations such as the BBC set agendas automatically by the way they report and what they say or fail to say.

    But if the report was a sort of QED for Debito, I thought. And I think many of think this is wrong. Some sort of rational immigration policy as an option at least should be the subject of informed public debate in this country, even if immigration is rejected. But to make it some sort of taboo, off the agenda, unthinkable and unmentionable elephant in the room is ridiculous.

    Mind you, you can’t expect much of the BBC. There were almost no facts in the report whatsoever, and there was not a single comment from a Japanese official on the issue, perhaps because the reporter was too lazy or, probably because the BBC was unable to get a comment or get one that made sense (?1)

  • Addenda- to be fair though, the report did do a good job of explaining why so many Japanese women (and women in Japan) are not having babies or delaying having then – lack of space in nurseries and kindergartens…because the agenda so far has been that the good wife should stay at home in the house and not have a job or a career.

  • John (Yokohama) says:

    From the Japan Times:

    “Hatoyama plays down prospects for drafting foreigner suffrage bill”


    Hatoyama said that while he acknowledges the existence of the regulation, the nation should not exclude foreigners when considering the prospects for a country that is struggling to deal with a shrinking population and other looming demographic problems.
    “Many of the problems facing the nation cannot be solved if the nation remains exclusive,” Hatoyama said.
    “We need a more open environment — granting local voting rights for permanent foreign residents is an issue that cannot be dismissed.”


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