Mixed results with foreign influx: Japan is changing, but system, attitudes need to keep pace

The birthrate in Japan is at an all-time low, far below the rate needed to maintain the population. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has predicted that Japan could lose 20 million people by 2050. If that isn’t bad enough, Japan also has one of the most rapidly graying populations in the world. Four out of 10 Japanese could be over the age of 60 by the middle of this century, and there may not be enough people of working age to support them. Many people argue that mass immigration is the only way to defuse a ticking demographic time-bomb. 

Unlike in most other developed nations, the number of foreign residents in Japan is extremely low — just over 2 million people or 1.56 percent of the population. By way of comparison, in the U.S., foreign-born residents make up almost 12 percent of the population, and in the U.K. around 8 percent. 

[Tokyo suburb] Nishi-Kasai’s Indian immigrants…tell of difficulties settling in Japan. One fundamental issue is language, as many IT workers have limited Japanese skills. While perhaps not an obstacle in their working life, it can cause problems outside the office.

“The doctors here are not that fluent in English,” says Suhas Sambhus, an IT specialist. Another problem is housing. High deposits and nonreturnable “key-money” costs are daunting for new arrivals. Many landlords are also reluctant to lease to foreigners. Consequently, most of Nishi-Kasai’s Indian population lives in large, government-owned apartment complexes.

But perhaps most fundamental of all is the issue of social acceptance. Manish Prabhune puts it bluntly: “There are only two nationalities in Japan: Japanese and foreigner.” Long-term residents of various nationalities struggle to find a place in Japan. Relatively few of Nishi-Kasai’s community choose to stay long-term.