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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #21: December 24, 2002

The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Five German Immigration Policy Comparisons

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

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


Like Japan, Germany is finding it difficult to come to terms with a rapidly declining population and the need to allow more immigrants into the country to help compensate for this trend. The two countries face very similar challenges with regard to developing a coherent policy towards almost identical demographic situations. Analyzing Germany offers intriguing insights into the dilemma that Japan faces. On 18 December 2002, the German government had its flagship immigration law struck down by the country's highest court. This law was designed to bring in thousands of skilled foreign workers to the country. In many respects, the German situation illuminates the underlying tensions Japan faces as it too struggles to tackle this important issue upon which the country's economic future depends.

For the last few years, the German media has been full of stories about the declining birthrate and what it will mean for the country's economy. This coverage has strong echoes to the scenarios that regularly appear in the Japanese media. At present, the German population is about 82 million and over 7.3 million foreigners live in the country. Around 2 million of Germany's immigrant population are from Turkey or of Turkish descent. It is estimated that the German population will shrink to 59 million by 2050. However, if there is an average net increase of 200,000 immigrants per year, the population would only decline to about 70 million by 2050. As in Japan, Germany can only stabilize its own population through large scale immigration.*

Since 1998, Germany under the Social Democrats and Greens has made considerable strides to meet the demographic challenges, but traditional concepts about blood and nationality have dominated the discussion. In January 2000, a new nationality law was passed after an agonizingly long and bitter debate. The legislation gave the children of "guest workers" born in the country the automatic right to become full German citizens. The original draft of the law would have allowed them to hold dual nationality, but it was dropped after the government faced massive opposition to their proposals. The opposition parties gathered a five-million signature petition against the law. Immigration has been successfully exploited by the opposition as a key issue in several regional elections over the past few years.**

As German nationality law now stands, a child of immigrant parents will have to choose between its two nationalities by the time it reaches 23 years of age. The 2000 law brought an end to Germany's citizenship laws dating back to before the First World War, which defined citizenship by bloodline rather than geographical place of birth. Under the previous legislation, some 7 million foreigners living and working in Germany were not entitled to citizenship, but ethnic Germans whose families may have lived in eastern Europe for centuries could claim a passport on the basis of bloodlines. Many Turks say that the current law still excludes the first generation of Turkish guest workers, because of the dual nationality ruling and stricter language requirements.

Germany is already suffering a shortage of skilled workers, which is expected to worsen as the population shrinks. This will have major implications for the German economy. To address this issue, the government of the current German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, introduced a more liberal immigration law in an attempt to fill major skills shortages in the German labour market. The government had pushed the legislation through after two years of highly charged and emotional debate that touched upon the very heart of German identity. The legislation was passed in parliament (Bundesrat) on 22 March 2002 despite fierce resistance from the opposition Christian Democrats and was overturned on 18 December 2002 by the Federal Constitutional Court, which upheld the opposition claim that it had not been passed in accordance with the constitution. The powerful Christian Democrat opposition argue that there is no room for more foreigners in Germany which has an unemployment rate of 10%. The opposition claimed that the bill would have opened the back-door to more general immigration. At present, many German business leaders are struggling to fill highly-skilled posts and most had welcomed the law. The court's decision was a major setback to the government and German immigration strategy. The German opposition has long argued that Germany is "not an immigration country," despite a large foreign population of asylum seekers and former guest workers who have been granted permanent resident status.

The German debate offers deep insights into the challenges that Japan will face when it eventually confronts the same issues. Similar problems can be expected, once Japan reaches the same stage as Germany. At present the Japanese government has tried to ignore the issue of immigration by focusing its population policy on making the workplace more family-friendly, but this strategy cannot hold back the unstoppable demographic tide. Developments in Germany probably give a reasonable indication of how the future debate will unfold in Japan.


References

* 2050 nur noch 59 Millionen Deutsche
[Only 59 million Germans in 2050]
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 April 2002, page 4


** Anti-foreigner campaigning in Bavaria
13 September 1998, BBC World


Other Articles in this Series

The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Four Immigration Scenarios
Social Trends: Series #20, GLOCOM Platform, 18 December 2002


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


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

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