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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #20: December 18, 2002

The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Four Immigration Scenarios

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.


Putting Japan's declining population trend into a global context offers a completely new perspective on the entire issue. The world population stood at 6 billion in 2000, having doubled from its 1960 level of 3 billion. Demographers predict that it will reach about 9 billion by 2050. Nearly all of the expected population growth will occur in developing countries. This is why some demographers advocate radical immigration policies which would allow much greater distribution of people from overpopulated developing countries to developed ones with declining population.

Demographic analysis shows that Japan could both ease its impending labour shortage and stabilize its population by allowing more immigrant workers into the country. However, unlike most European Union countries, Japan has not initiated any policies to substantially increase its intake of immigrants. Consequently, the number of immigrants allowed into Japan each year is relatively low compared with other wealthy industrially advanced nations.

A number of population research institutions have constructed a wide variety of population projections for Japan. With regard to the impact of immigration, the United Nations Population Division has produced several excellent models which predict the likely influence of differing immigration patterns on Japanese population trends. These scenarios demonstrate that increased immigration would be a more effective tool for dealing with the coming population imbalances than current government policy.*

One United Nations population model based on no net immigration into Japan between 1995 and 2050 clearly shows that without any increase in immigration there will be a steep population decline. The medium variant projection of this model predicts that the Japanese population would peak in 2005 at 127.5 million, declining to 104.9 million by 2050. Those aged between 15 to 64 years of age would continuously decline from 87.2 million in 1995 to 57.1 million in 2050. The population aged 65 or older would increase from 18.3 million in 1995 to 33.3 million in 2050. This would represent a doubling of the number of over 65s in the population from the 1995 level of 14.6% to 31.8% in 2050. The ratio of the working age population (15 to 64 years) to the retired population (over 65 years) would decline from 4.8 in 1995 to 1.7 in 2050. Under this scenario, it would be necessary to raise the retirement age to 77, if the 4.8 level were to be sustained in 2050.**

A different UN medium variant projection which assumes that Japan would want to maintain its predicted 2005 population peak of 127.5 million shows that this could be achieved with an average net increase of 381, 000 immigrants per year. This would equal a total net increase of 17 million immigrants into Japan from 2005 to 2050. This simulation predicts that by 2050 the immigrants and their descendants would total 22.5 million people, comprising 17.7% of the total population. However, another projection shows that if Japan wishes to keep up its 1995 working population (15 to 64 years) level of 87.2 million people, it would require an average net increase of 609, 000 immigrants per year. This would equal a total net increase of 33.5 million immigrants into Japan from 2005 to 2050. This model predicts that by 2050 the total population would be 150.7 million people of which immigrants and their descendants would total 46 million people, comprising 30% of the total population.

Another UN projection calculates the number of immigrants required to sustain the 1995 worker to retiree ratio of 4.8. To sustain the 4.8 level would require an average net increase of 10 million immigrants per year. This would equal a total net increase of 553 million immigrants into Japan from 2005 to 2050. This simulation estimates that by 2050 the total population would be 818 million people of which post-1995 immigrants and their descendants would total 711.6 million people, comprising 87% of the total population.

Obviously, some of these scenarios would not find much public acceptance in today's low-immigration Japan. Nevertheless, the UN immigration scenarios clearly show that increases in immigration would have a very positive impact on the declining population trend and help stabilize population levels. It would also be extremely beneficial in many other respects, such as helping the country to better integrate into the region and to become a more multicultural nation in tune with the new global age. A yearly influx of 381, 000 immigrants does not seem an unreasonable target, especially if most of the new comers were to come from nearby Asian countries.

Apart from the United States and Sweden, all developed countries are currently experiencing declines in their fertility rates. Predictions of steep population falls are not just a Japanese phenomenon and the most severe fertility declines are to be found in southern European countries such as Spain and Italy.*** As one aspect of countermeasures to halt fertility declines, most countries experiencing these trends have initiated policies designed to assist women better balance their work and childcare needs.* By international standards, Japanese strategy toward population decline is typical in most respects and only divergent with regard to immigration policy, which is much more restrictive than other industrially advanced nations. Many European Union governments had liberal immigration schemes in the eighties and nineties, which facilitated a considerable influx of immigrants. However, in recent years, there has been a general Europe-wide backlash against overgenerous immigration policies. This has resulted in a tightening up of immigration rules and qualifying criteria, but in most EU countries the number of people allowed in each year still remains high.

In the coming decades, the populations of neighbouring countries will continue to grow. Japan cannot expect to realistically isolate itself from this trend at a time when its own population is declining. The expanding world population will be one of the key global issues of the 21st Century and how Japan tackles its own population issues will most likely determine its own economic destiny in the 22nd Century.


References

* The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Two Comments on the Proposed Numerical Targets for Childcare Leave
J. Sean Curtin & Len Schoppa, Social Trends: Series #18, GLOCOM Platform, 25 November 2002


The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part One Numerical Targets for Childcare Leave
Social Trends: Series #17, GLOCOM Platform, 18 November 2002


** World Population Trends, United Nations Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)


*** The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Three Italy-Japan Comparisons
J. Sean Curtin, Richard J. Samuels and William T. Stonehill, Social Trends: Series #19, GLOCOM Platform, 11 December 2002

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