Japan Today



Japan’s demographic dialogue: A conversation on population

By James Rogers
The diverse faces of modern Japan Image: James Rogers/Geoffrey Griggs

Japan is well-known for being a mostly homogenous nation. However, it’s aging population necessitates change. So far, the measures taken to address the issue haven’t worked well. Regardless, relying on immigration seems unavoidable despite the difficulties implementing this will bring. Perhaps a re-examination of the country’s foreign resident demographics can provide some clarity in regard to a way forward.

Existential tourist dollars...but what kind?

As Japan’s population declines and its economy continues to struggle, it needs to focus on what it can to keep the money flowing in. One aspect of its economy that continues to grow while the rest stagnates is tourism. In 2003, there were 5 million visitors to Japan, but just 16 years later, the nation set a record with 31 million visitors. Regarding tourists from English-speaking countries, America was at the top with 130,000 visitors in January. Australia wasn’t far behind, though, with 103,000. Around 31,000 Canadians and almost 20,000 British visited in the same month. So, tourism catering to Americans can be advantageous.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Japanese tourists abroad, though. In 2019, nearly 20 million Japanese tourists were visiting countries worldwide. Japanese people love their overseas travel, and in particular, they love to visit America. In 2016, Japanese people made 6.9 million visits to English-speaking countries, and 3.7 million were to America. Again, Japan’s relationship with America is paramount in various ways, not to mention its most significant relationship being its military arrangement.

“However, tourism from English-speaking countries to Japan is dwarfed by visitors from other Asian countries.”

However, tourism from English-speaking countries to Japan is dwarfed by visitors from other Asian countries. In 2017, 22 million people from Asia visited the island nation. Only 1.1 million of these visits were for business, and thus, the Japanese tourist industry would be wise to cater to them first and foremost. Korean tourists topped the list at 6.6 million, and Chinese tourists weren’t far behind at 6.4 million. From this perspective, those in Japan’s tourist industry may want to consider studying Korean or Chinese. However, English still dominates language study in Japan, with a particular focus on American English. But why is that?

World English

Examples of world English throughout the world Image: James Rogers

If you’ve taught English in Japan, you’ve probably noticed that American English dominates the materials being used, often to the ire of non-American native English speakers. The reality is that more Americans are living in Japan than those from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland combined. In regard to English teaching, data provided by the JET Program is similar. As of 2023, there were significantly more ALTs from America than from native English-speaking countries combined. At 2,920, America topped the list, with the UK coming in second at 724 and Canada third at 550. Interestingly, there were nearly the same amount of ALTs from the Philippines as from Australia, and more from South Africa than from New Zealand. Times are changing, and hopefully, Japanese learners are shedding any stereotypical images of English speakers they have through interacting with such teachers. In fact, outer and expanding circle teachers of English can sometimes be better teachers than those from inner circle countries because of their own experience learning.

Money talks

However, the sheer number of Americans living in Japan is not a logical reason to justify focusing on its variant of English. I looked into the country’s trade with Japan. In fact, America’s total imports and exports with Japan are five times higher than Japan’s second-biggest English-speaking country trade partner (Australia). However, America’s $200 billion of trade with Japan isn’t number one. As you may have guessed, it’s China with over $270 billion worth of trade with Japan. You might then assume that perhaps Japanese people should be studying Chinese instead. However, English is the world’s lingua franca and if you combine all English-speaking countries’ trade with Japan, it is actually larger than China’s at $293 billion.

Another thing to consider is that international businesspeople from the European Union will often speak English. If you add their trade to that of English-speaking countries, it balloons to over $412 billion. In addition, more people in China study English than there are native English speakers. The plain fact is English is the go-to language for most international communication.

This data still doesn’t justify why the Japanese study English and not Chinese. At over 700,000, the Chinese are Japan’s largest group of foreign residents. At only around 55,000, American foreign residents are a drop in the bucket in comparison. But why are so many Chinese people living in Japan? This is actually a somewhat newer trend.

Japanese man seeks Chinese woman

In a 2013 academic paper by Helene Le Bail, it was noted that the Chinese population in Japan was only around 50,000 in 1980, but as Japan’s economy boomed in the 80s, it attracted many Chinese who came for work. In fact, they still do. The government’s recent efforts to combat population decline by bringing over vocational trainees have attracted more and more people from Asia. Vietnam is number one at 88,000, but trainees from China were a close second at 81,000. Many Chinese women also came to Japan for romance.

Japan’s dwindling population, especially in rural areas, has actually been on the government’s radar for some time. Le Bail explains that since the 1980s, rural governments and other organizations have been trying to attract foreign female spouses from China to counter depopulation in those regions and bolster the local economies. She noted that there are significantly more female Chinese immigrants than males in comparison to immigrants from native English-speaking countries.

Build trust, not walls

Now, if you listen to right-wingers in Japan, all of these foreigners coming over are bound to cause trouble. But are that many committing crimes, such as visa overstaying? The numbers don’t seem to add up to justify any xenophobia. In 2017, there were only around 65,000 illegal immigrants in Japan. South Korea had the highest number at over 13,000, and China was second at almost 9,000. In comparison, America had over 10 million illegal immigrants in 2021.

As Japan’s population declines and globalism progresses, Japan’s demographics will continue to change, albeit glacially slow for most. Regardless, transition is especially interesting to explore. Working at Apple must be interesting, but certainly, it must have been most exciting when Steve Jobs came back to Apple when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and transformed it into the world’s most valuable company. Japan is currently facing a significant challenge, and witnessing how it grapples with it will be interesting.

Dr James Rogers is a university professor who has published books and over 50 articles on linguistics and Japanese studies. He is the author of the book "On Living and Working in Japan."

© Japan Today

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What on earth is this article trying to say? Is it trying to discuss demographic changes? Why Japanese study american English? Why Japanese don't study Chinese instead of English? Illegal immigration? It is all over the place.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

grund- I agree. This article is very poorly written

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Interesting how something as simple as K-pop and anime can make two countries that once hated each other become so popular with each other. Politicians may want to continue their agenda of promoting hatred and distrust, but the next generation seems not to want anything to do with that. Sure, their interest might be a bit shallow (like cheap cosmetics), but it's better than comfort women denying, Yasukuni Shrine visiting, and Japanese flag burning. Hopefully, one day North Korea can experience the same and allow everyone to move on from the days of imperial Japan, kidnappings, and so on.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The Koreans still hate the Japanese. And not only the Koreans. It’s not only because of the crimes committed by the Japanese in WW2 but the believe that the mentality that allowed that to happen has not changed.

besides the Taiwanese the Japanese politics and mentality is mistrusted by other Asian nations.

you only have to be a foreigner, living more than 2 years in Japan, not married to a Japanese, to understand they certainly have part of a point.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

quote: This data still doesn’t justify why the Japanese study English and not Chinese.

English is still the international language of business and the largest common linguistic denominator as a first or second language. So it is the best investment of your time and money.

Japan speaks American English because it was not part of the British Empire or Commonwealth. Instead it was briefly occupied by the Americans, post-WWII. These things stick.

This is an article, not a 'conversation', a trite and annoying term, probably American in origin, like adding 'super' before everything, a few years ago.

Learn RP English to maximise your investment, and try to avoid tutors with a heavy accent.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As of 2023, there were significantly more ALTs from America than from native English-speaking countries combined.

This sentence seems to be missing some words.

In 2017, there were only around 65,000 illegal immigrants in Japan. South Korea had the highest number at over 13,000, and China was second at almost 9,000. 

Something isn’t quite adding up here.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

quote: This data still doesn’t justify why the Japanese study English and not Chinese.

Because studying Chinese puts all their eggs in one basket. And they can use English with the Chinese.

it’s pretty simple logic.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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