AP: Japan population shrinks by record numbers in 2010. NYT: Its workers aging, Japan turns away immigrants.


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Hi Blog.  Double feature today.  First up, the cold hard statistics as Japan’s population drop accelerate.  Second, the New York Times with an excellent article on how and why immigration to Japan is not being allowed to fill the gap.

This will funnel into my Japan Times column coming out tomorrow, where I do my annual recount of the Top Ten events that influenced NJ in Japan not only for 2010, but also for 2000-2010.  These phenomena make my Top Ten for both lists.  See where tomorrow!  Arudou Debito


Japan population shrinks by record in 2010
Associated Press Sat Jan 1, 2011, courtesy of TJL


TOKYO – Japan’s population fell by a record amount last year as the number of deaths climbed to an all-time high in the quickly aging country, the government said Saturday.

Japan faces a looming demographic squeeze. Baby boomers are moving toward retirement, with fewer workers and taxpayers to replace them. The Japanese boast among the highest life expectancies in the world but have extremely low birth rates.

Japan logged 1.19 million deaths in 2010 — the biggest number since 1947 when the health ministry’s annual records began. The number of births was nearly flat at 1.07 million.

As a result, Japan contracted by 123,000 people, which was the most ever and represents the fourth consecutive year of population decline. The top causes of death were cancer, heart disease and stroke, the ministry said.

Japanese aged 65 and older make up about a quarter of Japan’s current population. The government projects that by 2050, that figure will climb to 40 percent.

Like in other advanced countries, young people are waiting to get married and choosing to have fewer children because of careers and lifestyle issues.

Saturday’s report showed 706,000 marriages registered last year — the fewest since 1954 and a sign that birth rates are unlikely to jump dramatically anytime soon.

Japan’s total population stood at 125.77 million as of October, according to the ministry.


The Great Deflation
This series of articles examines the effects on Japanese society of two decades of economic stagnation and declining prices.

Its Workers Aging, Japan Turns Away Immigrants [original title]
[Current title: Despite Shortage, Japan Keeps a High Wall for Foreign Labor]
The New York Times
Published: January 2, 2011, courtesy of The Club


KASHIWA, Japan — Maria Fransiska, a young, hard-working nurse from Indonesia, is just the kind of worker Japan would seem to need to replenish its aging work force.

But Ms. Fransiska, 26, is having to fight to stay. To extend her three-year stint at a hospital outside Tokyo, she must pass a standardized nursing exam administered in Japanese, a test so difficult that only 3 of the 600 nurses brought here from Indonesia and the Philippines since 2007 have passed.

So Ms. Fransiska spends eight hours in Japanese language drills, on top of her day job at the hospital. Her dictionary is dog-eared from countless queries, but she is determined: her starting salary of $2,400 a month was 10 times what she could earn back home, and if she fails, she will never be allowed to return to Japan on the same program again.

“I think I have something to contribute here,” Ms. Fransiska said during a recent visit, spooning mouthfuls of rice and vegetables into the mouth of Heiichi Matsumaru, a 80-year-old patient recovering from a stroke. “If I could, I would stay here long-term, but it is not so easy.”

Despite facing an imminent labor shortage as its population ages, Japan has done little to open itself up to immigration. In fact, as Ms. Fransiska and many others have discovered, the government is doing the opposite, actively encouraging both foreign workers and foreign graduates of its universities and professional schools to return home while protecting tiny interest groups — in the case of Ms. Fransiska, a local nursing association afraid that an influx of foreign nurses would lower industry salaries.

In 2009, the number of registered foreigners here fell for the first time since the government started to track annual records almost a half-century ago, shrinking 1.4 percent from a year earlier to 2.19 million people — or just 1.71 percent of Japan’s overall population of 127.5 million.

Experts say increased immigration provides one obvious remedy to Japan’s two decades of lethargic economic growth. Instead of accepting young workers, however — and along with them, fresh ideas — Tokyo seems to have resigned itself to a demographic crisis that threatens to stunt the country’s economic growth, hamper efforts to deal with its chronic budget deficits and bankrupt its social security system.

“If you’re in the medical field, it’s obvious that Japan needs workers from overseas to survive. But there’s still resistance,” said Yukiyoshi Shintani, chairman of Aoikai Group, the medical services company that is sponsoring Ms. Fransiska and three other nurses to work at a hospital outside Tokyo. “The exam,” he said, “is to make sure the foreigners will fail.”

Tan Soon Keong, a student, speaks five languages — English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien — has an engineering degree, and three years of work experience in his native Malaysia, a track record that would seem to be invaluable to Japanese companies seeking to globalize their business.

Still, he says he is not confident about landing a job in Japan when he completes his two-year technical program at a college in Tokyo’s suburbs next spring. For one, many companies here set an upper age limit for fresh graduate hires; at 26, most consider him too old to apply. Others have told him they are not hiring foreigners.

Mr. Tan is not alone. In 2008, only 11,000 of the 130,000 foreign students at Japan’s universities and technical colleges found jobs here, according to the recruitment firm, Mainichi Communications. While some Japanese companies have publicly said they will hire more foreigners in a bid to globalize their work forces, they remain a minority.

“I’m preparing for the possibility that I may have to return to Malaysia,” Mr. Tan said at a recent job fair for foreign students in Tokyo. “I’d ideally work at a company like Toyota,” he said. “But that’s looking very difficult.”

Japan is losing skilled talent across industries, experts say. Investment banks, for example, are moving more staff to hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have more foreigner-friendly immigration and taxation regimes, lower costs of living and a local population that speaks better English.

Foreigners who submitted new applications for residential status — an important indicator of highly skilled labor because the status requires a specialized profession — slumped 49 percent in 2009 from a year earlier to just 8,905 people.

The barriers to more immigration to Japan are many. Restrictive immigration laws bar the country’s struggling farms or workshops from access to foreign labor, driving some to abuse trainee programs for workers from developing countries, or hire illegal immigrants. Stringent qualification requirements shut out skilled foreign professionals, while a web of complex rules and procedures discourages entrepreneurs from setting up in Japan.

Given the dim job prospects, universities here have been less than successful at raising foreign student enrollment numbers. And in the current harsh economic climate, as local incomes fall and new college graduates struggle to land jobs, there has been scant political will to broach what has been a delicate topic.

But Japan’s demographic time clock is ticking: its population will fall by almost a third to 90 million within 50 years, according to government forecasts. By 2055, more than one in three Japanese will be over 65, as the working-age population falls by over a third to 52 million.

Still, when a heavyweight of the defeated Liberal Democratic Party unveiled a plan in 2008 calling for Japan to accept at least 10 million immigrants, opinion polls showed that a majority of Japanese were opposed. A survey of roughly 2,400 voters earlier this year by the daily Asahi Shimbun showed that 65 percent of respondents opposed a more open immigration policy.

“The shrinking population is the biggest problem. The country is fighting for its survival,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. “Despite everything, America manages to stay vibrant because it attracts people from all over the world,” he said. “On the other hand, Japan is content to all but shut out people from overseas.”

Now, in a vicious cycle, Japan’s economic woes, coupled with a lack of progress in immigration policy and lack of support for immigrants, are sparking an exodus of the precious few immigrants who have settled here.

Akira Saito, 37, a Brazilian of Japanese descent who traveled to Toyota City 20 years ago from São Paolo, is one foreign worker ready to leave. The small auto maintenance outfit that Mr. Saito opened after a string of factory jobs is struggling, and the clothing store that employs his Brazilian wife, Tiemi, will soon close. Their three young children are among the local Brazilian school’s few remaining pupils.

For many of Mr. Saito’s compatriots who lost their jobs in the fallout from the global economic crisis, there has been scant government support. Some in the community have taken money from a controversial government-sponsored program designed to encourage jobless migrant workers to go home.

“I came to Japan for the opportunities,” Mr. Saito said. “Lately, I feel there will be more opportunity back home.”

Though Japan had experienced a significant amount of migration in the decades after World War II, it was not until the dawn of Japan’s “bubble economy” of the 1980s that real pressure built on the government to relax immigration restrictions as a way to supply workers to industries like manufacturing and construction.

What ensued was a revision of the immigration laws in a way that policy makers believed would keep the country’s ethnic homogeneity intact. In 1990, Japan started to issue visas to foreign citizens exclusively of Japanese descent, like the descendants of Japanese who immigrated to Brazil in search of opportunities in the last century. In the 1990s, the number of Japanese Brazilians who came to Japan in search of work, like Mr. Saito, surged.

But the government did little to integrate its migrant populations. Children of foreigners are exempt from compulsory education, for example, while local schools that accept non-Japanese speaking children receive almost no help in caring for their needs. Many immigrant children drop out, supporters say, and most foreign workers here in Homi say they plan to return to Brazil.

“Japan does not build strong links between immigrants and the local community,” said Hiroyuki Nomoto, who runs a school for immigrant children in Toyota.

The country is losing its allure even for wide-eyed fans of its cutting-edge technology, pop culture and the seemingly endless business opportunities its developed consumer society appears to offer.

“Visitors come to Tokyo and see such a high-tech, colorful city. They get this gleam in their eye, they say they want to move here,” said Takara Swoopes Bullock, an American entrepreneur who has lived in Japan since 2005. “But setting up shop here is a completely different thing. Often, it just doesn’t make sense, so people move on.”

8 comments on “AP: Japan population shrinks by record numbers in 2010. NYT: Its workers aging, Japan turns away immigrants.

  • No surprises here.

    It has been clear for years that the vast majority of Japanese are in favor of what I call “the Fujiwara option” — “shikata ga nai” inevitable economic decline and loss of international influence in the interest of maintaining (still overwhelming) ethnic homogeneity and culture in lieu of risking disruption through immigration that could otherwise act to shore up the economy and social security system stable.

  • Very interesting data:

    “In 2008, only 11,000 of the 130,000 foreign students at Japan’s universities and technical colleges found jobs here, according to the recruitment firm, Mainichi Communications.”

    I had always wondered what the employment prospect for NJ graduates was. If furthering your education is supposed to further your job prospects, why bother to study in Japan then?

    — Less than a ten percent chance of finding work here, according to the stats.

  • About the quote – the way it is worded is a bit vague. But it seems to be saying that there are 130,000 foreign students in Japan and that 11,000 foreign students found jobs in 2008. If programs average 4 years, you could probably assume that only one fourth were nearing graduation and thus actively seeking work. That would mean 32,000 making a job hunt success rate of around 1 in 3. Not great by any means, but considering some people probably always intended to go home after graduation, it isn’t exactly horrible.

    — Well put. Should have had the reporter make that analysis for us.

  • Echoing an earlier post about how it keeps coming back to demographics, the world is heading for a boom but not for Japan:

    “The low fertility of Korea (1.1), Singapore (1.2) Germany (1.3), Poland (1.3), Italy (1.4), Spain (1.4) and Russia (1.4), more or less dooms these countries to aging crises and population decline unless they open the floodgates to immigration.

    Japan (NYSE: MCO – news) is already deep into this phase of atrophy, explaining why the country has had such trouble shaking off the effects of the Nikkei bust. Its total population began contracting outright since 2005. It shed a record 120,000 last year, and will shrink 37pc by 2050.”

    Full article at

  • I don’t see the problem really.

    Better to have too few people than too many. Japan doesn’t develop & use the brains it has that well, and that’s not even looking at the female half of the nation that is severely excluded from career-track jobs.

    The demographic overhang is going to be a serious problem this century — taking care of old people — but old people don’t really consume that much. They just need nursing labor, vegetables, fish, and rice.

    I was a “guest worker” in Tokyo for most of the 90s and I’d love to go back and retire in Tokyo on my own terms.

    I’m not really sure who’s more screwed, the Japanese or us Americans. I suspect the US is but I could be wrong.

    — It shows. You don’t live here. And you don’t know much about the lifestyles of the elderly, whom you seem to think should be kept like plants, not enjoy themselves after all their hard work contributing to society.

  • Troy

    Retire in Tokyo? This is obviously the answer of someone who has experience as a token “guest worker” here. I do agree on the point that the female population should be put to better use. However, it is not white collar office jobs that are seeing labor shortages. It is the jobs that Japanese do not want to do. The low paying dirty and dangerous 3K jobs which are similar in nature to the ones Mexican migrants are supposedly “taking” from American workers.

    It is not the population numbers that will get Japan. It is the make-up of the population. You cannot have 1 person supported 4 pensioners. It just cannot be done.

  • The solution to low-paying jobs is labor shortage. (Of course, there still have to be profitable wealth-creation for the higher pay to be on the table in the first place.)

    Japanese mfg can’t compete with China’s JPY 24,000/mo wages, obviously. This is a serious problem that I can’t see the answer to — there are many moving parts here that make seeing the future difficult.

    But I disagree that the elderly are great consumers of stuff that Japan can’t produce for them. Japanese elderly aren’t expecting to galavant around the nation in RVs, they just want a modest retirement — food, nursing care — I would think.

    The core problem is that their savings and the Japanese national debt are largely identical. This is not a good thing.

    Plus Japan has another $900B of assets held as US Treasury debt. That’s over $20,000 per baby boomer!

    The interest alone on that cash hoard can pay almost a million $30,000 SE Asian salaries. Not bad, really.

    In 2020 there’s going to be 27M aged 70+. This is not an unseen mystery to the government. Their crack planners have something figured out, right?


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