Blaine Harden, Washington Post, May 30, 2008
Now Japan faces a much more fundamental threat to its future—demographic decline that experts say will delete 70 percent of its workforce by 2050.
Yet the all-hands-on-deck response that quelled the oil shock is conspicuously missing from Japan’s policies for a disappearing population.
“Unfortunately, the people do not share a sense of crisis,” said Masakazu Toyoda, a vice minister at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “Yes, we deserve some kind of criticism.”
Inside the government, there is growing agreement that Japan can head off disastrous population decline by significantly increasing immigration.
Japan has the world’s highest proportion of people older than 65 and the world’s smallest proportion of children younger than 15. Without immigration in substantial numbers, it will soon run perilously low on people of working age.
Yet among highly developed countries, Japan has always ranked near the bottom in the percentage of foreign-born residents. In the United States, about 12 percent are foreign-born; in Japan, just 1.6 percent. Most immigrants here are from Asia or South America. The largest number come from Korea (about 600,000 people), followed by China and Brazil. The Brazilians are mostly of mixed Japanese descent.
Yet there is little or no political will here to persuade or prepare the public to accept a sizable influx of foreigners.
There is another way for Japan to slow population decline and maintain its workforce: persuade more Japanese women to marry, have children and remain on the job.
Japan is failing badly in this area. The percentage of women who choose to stay single has doubled in the past two decades. When they do marry and have children, they drop out of the workforce at far higher rates than in other wealthy countries.
These worrying numbers have been bouncing around inside government ministries for several years. But the policy response—in a government dominated by men in their 50s, 60s and 70s—has often been tentative and sometimes insulting to women.
A health minister last year described women of childbearing age as “birth-giving machines” and instructed them to do “their best per head” to produce babies.
In recent months, however, the government’s tone has changed substantially, as powerful politicians and business leaders have begun to call for enlightened government intervention that would ease the cost and complications of raising children.
Still, Fukuda’s government is not proposing a major new increase in spending on national child care, in part because it does not have the money.
Japan struggles to pay the pension and health-care costs of the world’s oldest population. It also has a debt burden that amounts to 180 percent of its gross domestic product, which is the highest ever recorded by a developed country.