Even as population shrinks, Japan remains wary of immigration

Much of what you need to know about Japan’s long-standing attitude toward immigrants is summed up in the logo of the nation’s official immigration agency: It depicts a plane departing, rather than arriving.

But today the country faces a demographic crisis, one that some here believe will finally compel a traditionally homogeneous Japan to turn that plane around and let foreign workers come. The population is aging and shrinking — a formula for economic calamity and social stagnation. Over time, there will be too few workers to care for the millions of elderly citizens, grow food on farms or fill the manufacturing jobs that drive this export-led economy.

Given the forces of history and culture, the notion of a multiethnic Japan may seem impossible, a tautology in a country where nationality and ethnicity are fused to the point of being nearly indistinguishable. Yet a multiethnic Japan is what the country needs to become if it is to survive among the top tier of the world’s powers.

Japanese leaders have tried other options, and failed. For two decades, Japan’s stubbornly low birth rate has barely budged, despite many government incentives for couples to have more children. The new left-leaning government’s recent move to boost per-child monthly cash payments to families will be cripplingly expensive and probably unsustainable. (It’s also unlikely to convince women, who are marrying later or not at all, to have more children with Japanese husbands who remain allergic to sharing child-rearing duties.) The result could be a working-age population cut nearly in half by midcentury.

So, can the Japanese shed their traditions and allow more foreigners in their midst? On a recent trip, I was struck by the range of people I encountered — government officials, politicians, bureaucrats, business representatives, demographers and others — who argued that the nation has little choice but to do just that. Unfortunately for the Japanese, it appears unlikely that they will do so in time, or at the pace needed, to reverse the population declines.

To some extent, the notion of Japan as ethnically homogenous is not exactly right. For years, the country has admitted increasing numbers of foreign workers, without fanfare, as officials have tried to plug holes in the workforce. The number of nonethnic Japanese residents has crept upward in the past few decades and now stands officially at 2.2 million — about 1.7 percent of the population.

Starting with more than 650,000 Koreans, a legacy of Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1905 to 1945, the country has also taken hundreds of thousands of Chinese, as well as tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, Filipino and Indonesian nurses, African workers, and others. In addition, about 500,000 Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese ancestry have been allowed into the country since 1990, many of them to work in manufacturing plants.

The presence of these immigrants could be seen as the beginning of a revolution, or at least evolution, in Japanese attitudes toward foreigners. In Yokohama, Japan’s second-biggest city, I spoke to the director of a nursing home who recruited a pair of Indonesian nurses two years ago. The Indonesians — bright, able, outgoing and full of laughter — were among the most popular members of the facility’s caregiving staff and had set an example for what the director called their “standoffish” Japanese colleagues. The director shook her head in sorrow at the likelihood that the Indonesians would be unable to remain in the country unless they passed a tough licensing exam, given only in Japanese. “They have injected new life into this place,” she said.

At city hall, officials proudly displayed brochures with instructions for garbage separation and recycling — available in Japanese, English, Vietnamese, Chinese and Portuguese. “The big inflow of foreigners, Chinese and others, has changed the mind-set of Japanese here,” said Osamu Yamamoto, who oversees interethnic policy in the city of 3.7 million people.

However, a 2001 U.N. report found that just to maintain its population of about 125 million, Japan would have to permit average annual net migration of 381,000 people for 50 years — more than 17 million immigrants in that span. And to keep its working–age population at 1995 levels, the country would need 609,000 migrants annually, also for 50 years, or more than 33 million immigrants in all.

That’s not going to happen; Japan may be changing, but at nowhere near the rate necessary to save itself. The country, which is likely to be overtaken this year by China as the world’s second-largest economy, seems to have made its choice.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which won last summer’s elections, has plenty to say about population decline, but the word “immigration” appears nowhere in its manifesto. And the government has taken an enforcement-only approach toward immigrants and foreign workers, rounding up undocumented workers for deportation but making no attempt to develop a coherent vision of whom to admit and how to accommodate them. “The biggest crisis,” an official at the Japan Business Federation told me, “is that the government has no sense of crisis.”

In public, the habit of describing a racially homogeneous Japan is deeply ingrained. In 2005, then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso hailed the country as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race.” A senior official in Tokyo put it to me more simply: “This isn’t America. When we go to the hospital to have a baby, we know what we’ll get: black hair, dark eyes, skin more or less the color of mine.”

Indeed, Japan has hardly offered a welcoming environment to its imported workers, with treatment ranging from shameful to barely tolerant. Koreans, brought to Japan decades ago and often against their will, were granted citizenship, only to see it revoked after World War II. Although several generations have been born and have died in Japan, most are not naturalized citizens, nor can they vote. Vietnamese, thousands of whom began coming to Japan as refugees after the Vietnam War, remain scarcely assimilated; even if they grew up here and speak Japanese, intermarriage is rare.

Truong Thi Thuy Trang, 39, came to Japan from Vietnam as a boat person at age 12 and has spent much of her life in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. An interpreter for a district office of the city government, she earns a decent living and has the confident air of a refugee who has made it. But her greatest aspiration for her 11-year-old daughter is that she leave Japan, preferably for Chicago or New York, where she has relatives.

“What troubles me a lot, and what I talk to my daughter about, is how she can be proud that she’s Vietnamese and enjoy a standard of living on a par with her Japanese peers,” she said. “I don’t think it’s possible here.”

Mention the Brazilians, and Japanese complain about parties (too loud) and clothing (too skimpy). Mention foreign students, and you hear the story of a provincial university that, facing complaints from neighboring farmers who feared the newcomers would steal their crops, built a separate dorm for the students and surrounded it with barbed wire.

Mention Vietnamese or Chinese, and you get an indictment of their alleged failure to respect rules governing trash removal and recycling (those multilingual brochures notwithstanding). In Yokohama, where the foreign population has more than doubled over 20 years, to 80,000, a municipal official gave me chapter and verse on the local garbage wars. “I need to take someone else’s trash into my home to sort it!” Noryoshi Sato complained.

Some Japanese seem embarrassed by their country’s hostility to foreigners. At a news conference in Tokyo last month, officials presented plans to resettle Burmese refugees now living at U.N. camps in Thailand; they will be among the first refugees Japan accepts in years. The officials described language and vocational training to help assimilate the first 30 refugees. Then a Japanese television reporter stood and asked to be recognized.

“The more they know about Japan, the more these refugees might not want to resettle here,” he said. It sounded more like a statement than a question.