A dying people?

by Terence MacNamee

Asia commentator Urs Schöttli had a piece in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently in which he called the Japanese “a dying people”. This is because of the population in decline. The picture he paints is indeed bleak.

Schöttli looks at the Japanese situation from a Swiss point of view. The Swiss have just turned down a proposal put to a referendum that would have seen a cap put on the growth of the country’s population by restricting immigration to a low annual quota. Switzerland has the opposite problem to Japan: it is bursting at the seams population-wise, and it is a desirable destination for immigrants. Japan doesn’t want mass immigration.

According to the figures quoted by Schöttli, Japan reached the limit with 128 million people a few years ago. Now the population has started its steep descent. In 2060 there will be only 87 million, and what is worse, 40% of them will be over 65. So the decline will just continue and reinforce itself.

Meantime China is looming as a major economic and political force, ready to fill any vacuum. Japan will find it harder to maintain its position in Asia as a result.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Japan is just going to have to bite the bullet and open up to immigration. Chinese immigration included.

In fact, shouldn’t the Japanese all be learning Chinese? Not English. The immigrants that are coming sooner or later are not going to be American expats. No, sirree. They are going to be from elsewhere in Asia – most of all from populous, industrious China.

Will this change the character of Japan? You bet it will – just as non-European immigration is changing Europe, just as Asian immigration is changing Canada, just as Latin-American immigration is changing the United States. This is the very paradox of economic prosperity and political stability: that your prosperity attracts the less prosperous, who eventually inherit your prosperity, at the same time remodelling your cherished society according to their own values and aspirations.

Recently, an American who was helping out migrants streaming into the southern US said to a reporter “but we have to shut it down”, meaning the unauthorized entry of migrants. “If we don’t, the society they are seeking will cease to exist.” Exactly. There is the paradox. And it is inescapable.