Day after day, we are bombarded with news of Japan’s demographic crisis. The country’s workforce is getting older, and there are few younger workers to take their place due to low birthrates. Anyone who keeps up with the news should be well aware of this.
But here’s the thing. This problem of an aging population is not exclusively a Japanese one. Not by a long shot. Instead, it is slowly, yet surely becoming an increasingly big, global phenomenon.
Japan gets all the attention, because the problem is more acute there, but sooner or later, the world, with an exception to the African continent, will have to figure out how to remedy this. And the sooner they do, the better.
As many countries can hear the problem knocking at their doors, it has already entered Japan. But there is a silver lining.
Since Japan is one of the first countries to be staring the demographic winter in the face, it has an opportunity to be a model, a leader to the rest of the world, to guide other nations toward the right way to deal with the issue. The countless number of stories in the international media about Japan’s demographics shows that all eyes are on Japan. This spotlight on Japan presents the perfect opportunity for it to remind the world of the forward thinking, ingenuity, and global leadership which the country possesses, giving it a renewed and more influential role on the world stage.
Japan is more than capable of doing this. Unfortunately, time and time again, remnants of old Japan rear their ugly head and keep the nation from achieving such a status. We can see examples of such obstacles in the response to parts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s three arrows. Arrows which are meant to allow Japan to soar again, but instead, are being shot into the ground by outdated beliefs, especially when it comes to women and foreigners in the country.
These two groups of people could greatly help to remedy aging populations in Japan and other nations around the globe. In fact, they are the two groups which offer the best solutions to the problem. However, in Japan, they are also the exact two groups who are being held down under the traditional, albeit, outdated mores of homogeneity and a male-dominated society. And it is being done at the country’s own peril.
First, women. The world, including Japan has witnessed an unprecedented change in the roles of women over the past few decades. Although further changes are needed, the fact is that many more women, across the globe, rich and poor are experiencing a life outside of the home than ever before. They have entered the working world, a traditionally “male world”, and now have dreams beyond the home. However, in Japan, these dreams are being crushed under the weight of the sexist undertones which say that a woman’s place should remain at the home, and that their main dream should be to have children.
Evidence of this could be seen last month as male lawmakers let loose sexist remarks such as, "Why don’t you get married soon?" and “Can’t you have babies?” while Ayaka Shimomura, a female member of the Tokyo legislature, was speaking on issues women have when it comes to raising children.
Of course, this sexist attitude doesn't represent everyone in Japan, nor is it only a Japanese one, but it shows the uphill battle women face for those who wish to be something more than a housewife in the country.
This is a shame, because Japan desperately needs more people to join its workforce. And women are being underutilized largely due to such outdated beliefs. However, allowing women in the workforce is only half the battle. Working women must also be comfortable with having children through policies which prohibit such sexism in the workplace, as well as employee policies which help, and not hinder women who wish to work and have children. If more women could feel that having a child would not get in the way of their professional goals, they could help Japan two-fold, immediately boosting Japan’s economy through a larger workforce, as well as having more children to ensure Japan’s future workforce is also strong.
The world has changed and there is no going back. Women have arrived and they are increasingly shaping the world we live in. Japan, along with many other places in the world who staunchly hold on to the idea that this should be a “man’s world” and that a woman’s place is in the home are doing nothing now but prolonging the inevitable and in Japan. Such resistance to the new roles of modern women are hurting the country’s economy, future, and losing the chance of Japan being an example to the world by showing them how women can boost their economy both today and the future. But women are not the only way those holding on to the old ways are hurting Japan.
Japan has also been in the news as of late, over its stringent immigration policies. It is a topic that seems even more taboo in Japan than the role of women. Whereas women’s roles and how to help them are at least being discussed in Japan’s legislature, Abe’s previous attempt to try to create more liberal immigration policies seemed to be shut down immediately before they could even begin.
Again, the topic of immigration and/or citizenship is far from a Japanese issue. It is a hot topic in the U.S. and Europe where the government and people debate and discuss what to do about those who make it into their respective countries. But in Japan, there is little discussion, little debate, backed by an unspoken belief that Japanese citizenship should be largely exclusive to Japanese.
Pride in being Japanese is perfectly understandable. One should be proud and try to protect the traditions and culture of one's country. For many Japanese over the years, doing so meant resisting allowing too many foreigners to become Japanese citizens…and for a long time, one could argue it was working.
No longer. As the Japanese population continues to dwindle, one of the most obvious remedies to help stem the effects of the Japanese birth shortage would be to allow more immigrants in, not only as workers to build Olympics venues, but permanently as residents. Just like women, immigrants are a largely untapped resource which could boost the workforce right away and the children they have would be able to do the same for Japan down the road. Many countries in Europe are in a very similar mindset to Japan when it comes to immigration and citizenship. Italy comes to mind in terms of resistant attitudes in accepting immigrants as citizens. Japan could serve as a shining example to Italy and others who are debating how to handle immigration, and show them the benefits of an open mind and more open borders. And there are so many benefits. But first, it must practice what it would preach.
The solutions are clear. For all his faults, Abe recognizes the benefits women and immigrants can bring to Japan both today and for years to come. Hence his “three-arrow” plan. It will take some courage, but doing so will mean that Japan has created a stronger future for itself where men and women from both home and abroad come together to create a stronger, more cosmopolitan Japan, a shining example and leader to a world which will look to Japan to see how they should handle their own aging population problems.
Or, alternatively, Japan can continue on its current course of resisting such very obvious solutions while offering no viable alternatives but sexist jibes, futile resistance to the growing role of women and to foreign integration into its society all in the name of tradition. Traditional sexist and nationalist attitudes which belong to a Japan that no longer exists and whose only function over the past few decades was to help Japan decline in both population and economy.
Make no mistake. When it comes down to it, people are power. Welcome the power of women and immigrants, and power both domestically and globally will follow suit for Japan. Don’t, and Japan along with many other countries who resist a more feminine and integrated world will find out the hard way that tradition, culture, nationalism, and ethnicity mean very little with fewer people and growing insignificance.© Japan Today