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A silver lining to Japan’s demographic crisis

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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 Arrows which are meant to allow Japan to soar again, but instead, are being shot into the ground by outdated beliefs, especially when it comes to women and foreigners in the country.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 However, in Japan, they are also the exact two groups who are being held down under the traditional, albeit, outdated mores of homogeneity and a male-dominated society.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

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

27 Comments
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**Excellent article. . . and to the point !!!!! Japan needs to RADICALLY revolutionize its attitude toward women and foreigners** . . . . . .It's going t take EDUCATING the public via media/ school curricula AND passing legislation to ensure that these changes are actualized in the workplace and society as a whole

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Many countries in Europe are in a very similar mindset to Japan when it comes to immigration and citizenship.

This article is missing the point and by a lot.

European countries and especially countries like France have had chronic shortage of blue collar labor throughout the 20th century and have relied on immigration to remedy it. While being a workable short term solution, the medium and long term issues they have observed are populations that refuse to assimilate/integrate, leading now to their infamous suburbs and the rise of the far right in many western European countries.

Japan is wise to take note and implement a policy to take in only educated people more likely to integrate into their society.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

Japan is wise to take note and implement a policy to take in only educated people more likely to integrate into their society.

The problem is, in many respects Japan is not an attractive country for "educated people," especially if they want to raise families.

5 ( +12 / -7 )

semperfiJul. 14, 2014 - 07:22AM JST ****Excellent article. . . and to the point !!!!! Japan needs to RADICALLY revolutionize its attitude toward women and foreigners . . . . . .It's going t take EDUCATING the public via media/ school curricula AND passing legislation to ensure that these changes are actualized in the workplace and society as a whole

Except that the legislation already exists and has existed for decades. The problems are with attitudes, not with the law.

As I see it the problems are:

An unwillingness to assert one's rights because of a culture that values harmony over progress

A pro-corporation stance in the courts that means that even those who do defy social convention to pursue their rights are unlikely to win... and thus reinforce the status quo as cautionary tales.

A political elite that are increasingly pro-business and anti-regular people (e.g. Abe raising personal taxes while lowering corporate taxes).

If there's any hope for change Japan needs new politicians who are pro-people and less pro-business, which will then result in a judiciary that is more balanced and will eventually (in 2 or 3 decades and after a few hundred successful cases where companies are instructed to follow the anti-discrimination laws) result in positive change.

... the problem is that doing it that way will be too slow. In 20 or 30 years Japan's economy will be destroyed.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I'd agree in many ways but would put it differently: Japan's appeal goes beyond the simple economic factors of salary or other material factors important in raising a family like space.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

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.>

This must be intended as sarcasm as the article describes in detail a lack of forward thinking, ingenuity and global leadership.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

The crisis is partially a result of the fact that our economic model puts growth above pretty much everything else. to me silver lining is less people, less strain on services, more space. sure can bring in immigrants to take up some of the slack but could also settle for a less aggressive growth model.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

"A political elite that are increasingly pro-business and anti-regular people (e.g. Abe raising personal taxes while lowering corporate taxes)."

Sounds a heck of a lot like the current situation in the US. And we are certainly NOT a good example to follow. In fact, I think Japan would be wise not to do anything that's been done in this country in the last twenty years. Cause we screwed it up.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

A good article, and raises valid points. However, with all eyes on Japan, it doesn't necessarily mean that Japan will show the world the right way to do things. It could just as easliy show the world how to fail. It all depends on whether or not Abe and the rest of Japan can overcome the xenophobic traditional mindset and embrace a more modern and tolerant one. Women and foreign workers are undoubtedly an untapped resource in Japan and many other countries, but there is a catch, particularly in regards to foreigners. I cite my own home country: Britain, as an example. When Tony Blair came to power, he relaxed the Immigration Policy greatly. Too much in fact, and now we have an immigration crisis on our hands. There was no suitable screening process, so we have an increase in crime from immigrants who are wanted criminals back in their own home countries. Then, there are the immigrants who work 7 days a week, getting all kinds of benefits (including our time old free healthcare), and then they send all the money they make back home, so none of it goes into our economy, which doesn't help matters either. There are far too many cases of immigrants who come to Britain, make a fortune doing the jobs we're too picky or stubborn to do, then they return home to retire in houses that we can't afford here because house prices are absurdly high (but that's a separate issue).

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for relaxing immigration policies as long as it's done smartly. Japan needs to find a balance between Italy and Britain. The main problem Japan faces are the sexist, nationalist and xenophobic members of its society. Too many of these make a country undesireable, and it seems they hold a lot of sway in Japan as well, blocking progress. I know what it's like to live amongst nationalists and xenophobes. I'm doing so at the moment, and it is far from pleasant. Needless to say, I'm looking to flee as soon as I can (it's just a matter of money, which I lack right now). If the Japanese can leave these outdated views behind, then there's hope for the country yet. I'll keep watching, and hoping that one day I can live there as an accepted citizen. It's more likely to happen there than where I am now, I'd bet money on it.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

This is ONLY a crisis to the government. It is NOT a crisis for regular people. Even though Japan has been in a (gasp) deflationary spiral the last ten or so years (the so called "lost decade") their REAL GDP has actually been GROWING. Deflation plus slowly growing GDP in nominal terms means a growing GDP in REAL TERMS, when you add in the shrinking population, that means the GDP per Capita is growing even faster.

This is FANTASTIC, except if you're a government and you owe trillions and trillions of dollars, then shrinking populations and deflation make it IMPOSSIBLE to pay back your debt.

This whole Abenomics thing is a huge CON to benefit the government at the expense of the people.

3 ( +8 / -5 )

Japans solution traditionally to demographic problems was transferring it's industries else where. Take for example before WWII. Before WWII Japan transferred it's industries into the coast of China because of the raw materials needed. Japan also has an amazingly dynamic economy capable of finding solutions that would only ever pop out of such a small archipelago island. Immigration is certainly not going to be a valid solution as it goes heavily against the cultures historic tradition for harmony and cohesion.

Those that think immigration is some kind of solution solves all, are not taking Europe into consideration. Only the United States has a tradition of assimilating large waves of immigrants, not something you can say about say Germany or France.

If anything, technology such as Robotics will imo solve many of these labor problems but not all. If they want to see to it that the indigenous populations birth rate increase then the only solution I can think of is lowering taxes. Japan is already one of the most heavily taxed jurisdictions in the world. This contributes to higher price and necessity prices. Thus less money to raise a third child and border sufficient for a second. And they are certainly too prideful to live off welfare like many immigrants in the west.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'll gladly choose to give up some space in Tokyo and knowing that the chances of my kids getting caught in the middle of a shooting are orders of magnitude lower than if I were in Chicago for example...

I see your point, I really do, but has it ever occurred to you that one of the reasons that your kids are unlikely to be caught up in a shooting in Tokyo is precisely because Japan is not an appealing and welcoming place for outsiders? If you know what I mean.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

This seems to be written by the pro-corporate lobby, which seeks a larger population of workers to keep labour costs low. Just the other day there was an article about how the shortage of workers might push up wages. And we know that Japan has not been able to feed itself for decades now, living beyond its carrying capacity. This imbalance between food and resources and population let to the disastrous colonial experiment and post WWII Japan has used the global trading system to become a major exploiter of other people's land, water, resources and labour. Now when Japan has a chance to finally bring its population better in line with the land base, we find a story such as this, hiding the real motivation of further wage reduction behind talk about women's rights and immigration.

A better solution would be to embrace population decline and its lower environmental impact, find a different measure of life quality and social betterment than GDP growth (since this will be impossible in capitalist countries with a declining population) and work to better share social wealth. The demographic shift is an opportunity indeed to create a more environmentally sustainable economic system. This doesn't exclude any move to enable women to participate equally in the labour market or that increases the number of refugees and immigrants Japan accepts, but these should not be seen as methods to boost worker number to further drive down the price of labour.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

"has it ever occurred to you that one of the reasons that your kids are unlikely to be caught up in a shooting in Tokyo is precisely because Japan is not an appealing and welcoming place for outsiders?"

Well if you make enough money to live in Tokyo you could live in Palo Alto which is not only safe, but much higher quality of life than Tokyo. It is not fair to pick the crappiest city in America regarding safety and use it as the norm. I wonder if the mod will delete the pro-America post.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'm not a city girl, but I'd take Tokyo over any big city, especially any big city with a gang/gun culture.

Ah, but would you want to raise kids there (provided you could afford to have more than one in the first place)? And if not, then why would you expect anybody else to?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

'Japan can serve as a model for the rest of the world...' That's the silver lining? Really? So the rest of the world should give thier respective governments the ability to conduct thier affairs in more secrecy, build up their military regardless of the shrinking work force, insitll youngsters with patriotic education at the expense of historical actuality, change their systems of governance on the basis of re-interpretation rather than popular mandate, fail to acknowledge the severity of nuclear disasters....OK....but what's in it for Japan?

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

"The world has changed and there is no going back. Women have arrived and they are increasingly shaping the world we live in."

Wow, when were we ever gone in the first place? I never noticed that. And is he seriously trying to state that women have never had a hand in shaping the world?

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.

Okay, please tell me that I'm not the only one who fell out of her ergonomic chair in tears of laughter upon reading this! Forward thinking! Global leadership!

4 ( +6 / -2 )

There is something fundamentally contradictory about Abe's aim to revitalize Japan by including more women in the (high-paying) workforce. This article glances blithely past the problem as if it weren't even staring us in the face by suggesting that we just need to make workplace policies and attitudes more friendly toward having kids. How, exactly, does anyone propose to do this? Countries all over the world have more friendly attitudes and policies toward working women having children, and yet those women are bearing children at far below the replacement rate, too.

Study after study has shown correlations between economic development and declining birth rates, between women in the workforce and declining birth rates, between women's earning levels and declining birth rates, between female education and declining birth rates, and on and on. Just this past week, a study from Taiwan came out showing how, regardless of women working or staying at home, the more education women received, the fewer kids they had, resulting in a consistent, slight decline each generation in the nation's average IQ.

It's not sexist to say any of this. These are observable facts. These demographic and societal trends have held true all over the world. So when Abe plans to revitalize Japan's economy by getting more women into full-time career salaries, the long-term prospect is gloomy. What might be gained in the short-term, too, is not clear. Yes, perhaps this would make society more radically egalitarian, for what that is worth, by wiping away some hiring practices that favor men over women. But the economic and social realities are these:

With more women entering the labor force, the extra supply of labor will drive salaries to stagnate and perhaps even to decline. Possibly, the shrinking population will balance this out so wages do not decline, or possibly not.

For each high-earning woman in the workforce, there will probably be one or two low-paying positions created in child care or food service, which will have the net effect of dragging down earning levels.

If salaries stagnate against inflation, more and more current homemakers, school-age youths, and elderly will be pressed to find jobs to make ends meet in their families. Elderly workers will be a sign of depleted savings and insufficient pensions. Youth opting for work over education may mean lost opportunities. Housewives working will probably mean fewer kids.

For each higher level of educational attainment, salary, or work seniority women achieve, the average age of marriage will fall a little later and the average number of children born will drop a little more.

Since the most highly intelligent women will be the ones most highly educated and in the highest paying jobs, they will produce the fewest kids, resulting in a net decline in intelligence in the Japanese population over the next few generations.

Abe's plan is not one for revitalization and rejuvenation. It's societal suicide.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

@mikeylikesit Um, so what are you suggesting exactly, that Japanese women shouldn't be educated past high school level? Frankly, I don't see any difference.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Japans solution traditionally to demographic problems was transferring it's industries else where. Take for example before WWII. Before WWII Japan transferred it's industries into the coast of China because of the raw materials needed. Japan also has an amazingly dynamic economy capable of finding solutions that would only ever pop out of such a small archipelago island. Immigration is certainly not going to be a valid solution as it goes heavily against the cultures historic tradition for harmony and cohesion.

The colonial solution was not in response to the demographic problem of a shrinking population. It was a response to a growing population and an industrializing economy that needed more natural resources. Colonization is no longer viable in global politics, nor would it solve the problems of Japan's aging, shrinking population. Off-shoring industries in other countries not under Japan's political control is simply more globalist free trade policy, the result of which will be rising income inequality in Japan as the country shifts away from industry and into a low-wage service economy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

What mikeylikesit makes a lot of sense, even if it inconveniently contrary to political correctness. The notion of equality has a powerful appeal, but what it tends to mean is: We are all the same, when, in fact, we are not. Women are certainly not inferior to men: I have two sons, two daughters, and a wife and so am constantly reminded of that fact. (Both my daughters hold down professional jobs.)

But only wacko feminist ideology can claim that they are somehow the same.

Telling women that they must work in the same sort of jobs as men is no better than telling them that may not do so. The brutal and unchangeable fact of life is that we cannot have everything. In this regard, so-called conservatives in the LDP are guilty of pandering. Someone has to take care of children. Who will take care of the children of those who work in daycare centers? No one wants to pose that nasty question?

The Japan Times was once a middle-of-road/conservative, even quasi-nationalist newspaper: Japanese were Japanese, and foreigners were foreigners. But now it takes a knee-jerk, pie-in-the-sky pseudo-internationalist position, as if another four or five million Arudou Debito types (or a few more foreign ruffians and scam artists in Shinjuku and Roppongi) would be peachy-keen.I say, no thanks. I am happy to have increasingly loopy Americanism well on the other side of the Pacific

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Tessa

I don't think I've suggested anything one way or the other, except to point out the inherent contradiction in Abe's policy proposal based on observable demographic trends in Japan and around the world. Draconian educational limits based on gender are a political non-starter anyway, nor do I think that this would be beneficial to a society for a lot of other reasons, including basic principles of liberty. Granted, Japan doesn't have the same historical, cultural connections to a concept like individual liberty that,say, America has, so perhaps Japan, if the demographic situation were dire enough, would go this route. If China can enact a one-child policy, it's not so far-fetched to imagine a country like Japan enacting a minimum three-child policy, or to imagine tethering higher education to child-bearing. Want a college education? Great, but if you don't also have two kids by age 30 and three by age 35, the economic penalties will be severe (as in a year's salary or more). I don't recommend or endorse such policies, but I'd not be at all surprised to see them crop up more and more prominently the more severe the demographic decline becomes.

My point is simply that Abe's proposed solution actually makes the root problem worse. We know that educated, high-earning, economically independent women have fewer children. This has been true all over the world, regardless what incentives for child-bearing have been offered. Abe is trying to address a problem stemming from a low birth rate by enacting policies that are destined to drive the birth rate lower. We'd be stupid not to acknowledge this blatant policy flaw.

What to do instead? I don't know that there is a solution. Generally, societies move in cycles, and government policies at best will only slightly accelerate or decelerate the cycle. Smart people don't have enough kids because they are distracted by education and careers; society dumbs down; the economy slides until advanced education becomes a luxury that most cannot afford. Eventually, successful people start having more children again, and the long-term growth-contraction cycle resets. Abe's policies certainly won't break the cycle. I'm not sure what others would. A draconian approach that put limits on women (educational limits, baby quotas, or whatever) would probably just send Japan's most intelligent, talented women fleeing overseas, to the same net effect.

I agree that immigration is not particularly a viable option for Japan, and I say this as a foreigner living in Japan.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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.

Could someone tell me what this sentence is suppose to mean because I do not understand it.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Just this past week, a study from Taiwan came out showing how, regardless of women working or staying at home, the more education women received, the fewer kids they had, resulting in a consistent, slight decline each generation in the nation's average IQ.

@milkeylikesit: can you provide a link to this study about Taiwan's falling IQ?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's well known that the more educated the woman, the fewer the kids but the rate of those kids surviving into adulthood aso increases. Never heard about IQ though so yes, link please. I call BS on that as the more educated, the more they spend on their child's education and invest in the child's future.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

That's two posts now referring to "Pearly Harbor."

Auto spell-checks are destroying the language....

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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.

This is exactly the problem. The immigration issue is of great importance, and one that is showing ever-so-slight signs of improvement. HOWEVER, it absolutely pales in comparison to the rampant sexism, sexual harassment and borderline misogynistic attitudes of a large portion the male population here in Japan (and I'm a male). Honestly, there would be a Royal Commission called if this went on back home.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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