Will Japan Become a Nation of Immigrants?


Immigration Terminal at Narita Airport

Japan has a thousand-year-old history of being closed to immigrants.

According to Hidenori Sakanaka, former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and Executive Director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, the nation needs to make big changes to its immigration policy,

“Japan needs to accept at least 10 million immigrants during the next 50 years,” Sakanaka, the author of Japan as a Nation for Immigrants, said recently at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. “Without these immigrants Japan’s population will decrease from the current population of 128 million to less than 87 million by 2060.”

He warns that Japan cannot sustain itself with its declining workforce and its growing elderly population. The recent drive to increase the number of women in the workforce won’t resolve the demographic crisis.

Japan’s agricultural sector has already been hit with labor shortages due to the advanced age of many of its farmers, according to the Japan Times. The number of foreign laborers working illegally on farms across Japan rose threefold during a three-year period ending in 2015, noted the article.

Sakana said, “In half a century people 65 and older will increase from 29 million to 37 million and seniors will make up 40% of Japan’s population.”

The population decrease isn’t limited only to Japan. China’s one-child policy has done much to shrink the current population of 1.38 billion to a projected 1.34 billion by 2050, and Italy will see a decline from 55 million to 43 million.

In contrast, the US population will grow from 321 million to 397 million. A 2008 report by the Pew Research Center projects that the U.S, population could increase to 438 million due to immigration with nearly 30% of the future population being Asian.

To accomplish immigration reform Japan needs to develop the legal framework by establishing two cornerstones.

“The first is to draft immigration laws that will welcome people of all backgrounds,” Sakanaka said. “Next, Japan should establish immigration agreements with the 100 countries it has friendly diplomatic relations with, and these countries should commit to sending people to Japan.”

Meanwhile, public attitudes toward immigrants have shifted in recent years.

Ten years ago the “in favor” number was near zero percent. However, an Asahi Newspaper poll taken last year showed 50 percent believed that immigration would have a positive impact on the country while 38% were negative. People in their 20s were 50% for and 49% against opening Japan up to more immigrants. Sakana compared the country’s results to Germany’s positive views of immigration of 80%.

Refugees in Japan

Of the 10 million immigrants over the next fifty years 500,000 should be refugees, according to Sanaka.

“This compares to only 27 refugees accepted from the 7,586 applicants in 2015,” he says. “Japan should commit to accepting 1,000 Syrian refugees per year, especially those with young children.”

Can Sakanaka’s dream of a Nation of Immigrants be realized?

He doesn’t know how much he can accomplish during his lifetime, but he will continue to take a leading role in immigration reform. He is sure that unless someone of today’s generation lays the groundwork for Japan to become an immigrant nation they will be admonished by future generations as having done nothing to fix the problem.


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