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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #23: January 15, 2003

The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Seven Debating the Influence of Immigration on the Birthrate

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University) and David J. Littleboy (Contributor, NBR'S Japan Forum)

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

David J. Littleboy's comments are in response to the previous article in this series (Part Six), A Role for Returnee Emigrants

David J. Littleboy: Certainly a declining birth rate makes supporting the elderly harder, but I'm not convinced that mass immigration will solve much of anything. The main problem is that for mass immigration to make sense, there'd need to be massive numbers of (presumably) low-paying jobs. I don't have numbers at hand, but I don't have the impression that the Japanese economy has any need for large numbers of new workers in any category. Quite the contrary, unemployment is increasing.

J. Sean Curtin: Obviously, with unemployment currently at record highs it would not make sense for a large number of immigrants and returnee emigrants to flow into Japan at this particular juncture. However, demographic trends are a vital long-term issue which requires a decades-long perspective. Thus, any meaningful discussion on population issues has to be conducted in this context. The Japanese population will not actually start to decline until about 2005, but already we know that there will be serious social and economic consequences for Japan as a result. For example, if there were no net immigration into Japan between now and 2050, there will be a very steep population decline. A United Nations population projection predicts that the Japanese population would peak in 2005 at 127.5 million, declining to 104.9 million by 2050. Without any net immigration, 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. While the current high levels of unemployment are a serious problem, demographic analysis clearly shows that in less than a decade there will already be a shortage of workers.*

David J. Littleboy: "Right now, besides the returning emigrants you mentioned, the orphans left behind in China after the war who move back to Japan often have a similar rough time of it economically/socially, and there are some who feel that the government ought to be providing far more generous stipends for them.

J. Sean Curtin: This is certainly true and the plight of returnee Japanese from China clearly exposes the terrible weakness of current government policy. If these Japanese citizens cannot be successfully integrated into society, immigrants obviously face even more serious problems. Therefore, if the Japanese government adopts immigration as a strand of its policy to deal with the declining population, then it must also make realistic plans for how to integrate the newcomers into society.

David J. Littleboy: It seems to me that getting the economy growing again is far more important than immigration and returnees. If Japanese males had better long-term employment prospects, Japanese women might be more interested in marriage and kids.

J. Sean Curtin: Poor unemployment prospects are just one factor behind the declining birthrates. Analysis shows that falling fertility in Japan is the result of (i) deliberate decisions to have fewer births, (ii) postponements of births that result in many planned future births never occurring, (iii) the rising age at the time of leaving home, (iv) the declining marriage rates with low rates of cohabitation, (v) high youth unemployment and (vi) prolonged education. Except for the United States and Sweden, all industrially advanced countries will experience population declines between now and 2025 due to falling fertility rates. These drops are due to large declines in the fertility of younger age groups, which are not compensated for by increases in fertility in later years. Demographic projections clearly show that Japan could both ease its impending labour shortage and stabilize its population by allowing more immigrants and returnee emigrants into the country.

David J. Littleboy: We'll have to agree to disagree here. These all strike me as not primary causes but rather secondary effects that in turn reduce the fertility rate. Items (i), (iii), and (iv) in particular are at least aggravated by poor employment prospects. (i) Many couples defer childbearing in hard times. (iii) This is greatly aggravated by poor employment prospects. (iv) Again, long term planning (marriage and family) require expectations of financial stability. Increasing rates of part-time employment/the declining availability of full-time employment make marriage difficult.

J. Sean Curtin: While you are correct to state that the weak economy and poor employment situation are elements affecting the birthrate, I think you are overemphasizing their overall importance and neglecting other key factors. Even when the Japanese economy was booming and there was near full employment, the birthrate was steadily declining. Remember, most of the world's poorest countries with the worst economies have the highest global fertility rates, while most of the richest nations have the lowest rates. This simple fact illustrates that while economic factors are an important influence on fertility rates, other equally important social and environmental factors also play a vital role in the equation.**

David J. Littleboy: I also suspect that the Japanese housing situation has a lot to do with declining birth rates. Raising 3 kids in a 2LDK apartment is not a sensible thing to do.

J. Sean Curtin: For some time the Japanese government has recognized that workplace and environmental factors play an important role in the fertility equation. This was one of the reasons why the government initiated the "Angel Plan" (enzeru puran) which was designed to expand the provision of daycare for the children of working parents. At present, priority has shifted away from the "Angel Plan" and the government's latest approach now incorporates strategies designed to improve workers' lifestyles and shorten hours of employment. The new policy is entitled "Plus One Proposal to End the Low Birthrate" (shoushika taisaku purasuwan), or "Plus One" for short.***

David J. Littleboy: I agree that increased immigration into Japan should be encouraged. But I do not see it as a solution to the low fertility rate problem. I see low fertility as a symptom, and that solving the underlying problems would increase fertility rates at least somewhat and make immigration easier. Solving the real problems requires reforms/improvements in the Japanese economy, housing infrastructure, and other areas that would make raising kids easier and more attractive.

J. Sean Curtin: Certainly an improved environment in which to raise children would encourage some couples to have more offspring. The current strategy of the Japanese government is to try to make the workplace more family-friendly in order to encourage women to have more children and immigration has largely been overlooked. In many respects this policy mirrors the stance taken by Germany which like Japan has a declining birthrate and is in economic difficulty. However, demographic analysis of both Germany and Japan show that without a realistic immigration policy, it will be extremely difficult to halt the population decline and the resulting social and economic problems.****


* The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Four Immigration Scenarios
(Social Trends: Series #20)

** The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Three Italy-Japan Comparisons
(Social Trends: Series #19)

*** The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part One Numerical Targets for Childcare Leave
(Social Trends: Series #17)

The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Two Comments on the Proposed Numerical Targets for Childcare Leave
(Social Trends: Series #18)

**** The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Five German Immigration Policy Comparisons
(Social Trends: Series #21)

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