Friday, September 19, 2008

The Third Dawn

A few weeks back, in a surprisingly unreflective blog post (for him at least) Adam Richards asked why Japan should be admitting more "foreigners" -- and laid out what to him seemed strong arguments against such a policy.

The arguments, that Japan can somehow compensate for a declining labor force by abandoning unprofitable activities or by making better use of female labor, senior citizens and technology, are either unworkable (yes, let's just abandon agriculture, small-scale manufacturing and retail) or nonsense (having the elderly work is a way of showing them "respect" - right).

The basic argument for increasing immigration into Japan is relatively simple: in order for the economy to remain the same size, much less grow, one has to, as workers retire, either radically improve output per worker or keep adding new workers. On a structural level, as an increasing amount of domestic labor is shifted into the eldercare industries arising from longer lifespans, and the number of children and young adults shrinks, the physical labor jobs and the non-touchey-feeley lower level service economy jobs will either a) have to be filled by non-Japanese or b) disappear - which means a deterioration in overall quality of life.

[A neat little shorthand economic argument for immigration, if you need one: every time a poor country immigrant, legal or illegal, crosses a border in order to work in a rich nation, World GDP rises by tens of thousands of dollars - making everyone better off. As for the strategic, moral and revitalizing consequences of a state's being open to immigrants, I do not think that these are even disputable.]

Ishizuka Masahiko has published a neat little thought piece in the Nikkei Weekly on the potential impact of the coming increase in immigration. He puts forth the radical yet eminently sensible proposition that immigration over the next few years and decades will be a third opening for Japan, comparable to the coming of the Black Ships and the Occupation.

If Ishizuka is right -- and I believe he is -- then everyone we should welcome the crashing in of this third wave. The two prior openings did much to improve the prestige, wealth, autonomy and security of Japan...and lot of the average Japanese citizen.


Janne Morén said...

I'm about as pro-immigration as you can get, but there is one point where I think you're being a little off.

The absolute size of the economy would need a level or increasing supply of workers to stay at the same size or increase. That is true. But the absolute size of the economy- GDP - does not matter. It is the size of the economy per head - GDP per person - that matters. That is the measure that determines the living standard in the country.

Put it this way: Sweden and Japan is approximately the same size. Japans population - and its GDP - is 14 times Swedens. Would you say the living standard of Japan is 14 times greater than Sweden? Or would you say that overall the two countries' citizens are fairly comparable when it comes to most measures of wealth, education, health care and so on?

The problem is not, and has never been, population size. The problems are rapid population size change and population age. Rapid change - in either direction - is problematic since society takes time to adapt. Ageing is a problem since it skews the ratio of working to retired people.

The problem of aging is likely best (and only) solved by a gradual shift to a pension system that takes longer average lifespan into account; even a fairly small shift in pension age (a year or two) would dramatically reduce this problem.

Japan is poised for a period of rapidly (demographically speaking) population decrease. This is troublesome - just as a rapid increase would be - and immigration is indeed a very good way to mitigate the effects. But there's nothing saying that the country should aim to increase it's population at all costs; a slow, orderly decrease buffered by immigration to a lower population level could be just as appropriate.

I would say that this reason for increased immigration is not even the most compelling. More important for the country over time, I think, is the new social and cultural jolts it will cause.

MTC said...

Herr Morén -

Your points are valid in a static, uncompetitive world. Unfortunately, my guess is taht Japanese policy makers view Japan as desperately battling to retain at least some of influence and importance in world politics. If Japan wants to avoid seeming a pipsqueak as compared to China or, Amaterasu preserve us, the Koreans, then it needs immigration to at least keep the size of its economy stable.

Janne Morén said...

Hmm, the nationalists are the people most concerned with Japan's relative power in the world over the welfare of it's citizens. They are thus acutely aware of the power effects of population decrease - but they are also the people most likely to find large-scale immigration distasteful, even horrifying.

Ah, sweet irony. What a drab world we would have without it.

John Mock said...

Following these thoughts, a few more. Clearly it would take a major shift not only of policies but even of pretty basic modes of thought to allow elderly (see the Global Communication Platform article by Atsushi Seiki) or women any serious role. Clearly agriculture needs some sort of massive reorganization, not only are the farmers aging out (in my research area in Tohoku, the average farmer is now over 60...well over 60) but Japan is said to have the lowest degree of food self-sufficiency of any industrialized country (presumably except Singapore). However, I cannot see technology, women or the elderly filling in that sector at all.

On the other hand, I think Janne Moren's point about the Nationalists both being interested in international prestige AND being the most concerned about immigration is telling. Japan does have significant immigration but it is so obfuscated various conflicting policies that it is sometimes hard to see. Also the element of "rotating immigration" makes things even more complicated.

However, I think that the main point is not whether or not depopulation is going to occur (it probably is) but how depopulation--or any major shifts like massively increased immigration--are handled. Right now, it appears that the policy of the Japanese government is to simply allow most of the country (geographically, that is) to simply explosively depopulate and age. There are a bunch of half-baked measures to deal with the consequences but they are almost all centrally controlled and largly ill informed and ineffective.

I think that the same point would apply to massive immigration (at least massive enough to offset the current birth rate). How the immigration is handled will be absolutely critical. For example, one interesting proposal is for small groups of highland farmers displaced in Southeast Asia (Hmong and others) to be moved into the abandoned farms of highland western Japan. Small groups moved into small areas where they are desperately needed might work pretty easily. However, this is very small scale. My own thought is that if the central bureaucracy continues to maintain a death grip on all aspects of policy generation and implementation, it will be a disaster.