Japan has maintained, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward immigration. Because of low fertility rates and a sparse flow of immigrants, the population of Japan is expected to drop by 19 million people — about 15 percent — by the year 2050, falling from 127 million to 108 million.70 Exacerbating the situation is the fact that more than half of its population will be age 50 or older.71 The Japanese public is well aware of the demographic dilemma. In a Pew Research Center poll, 87 percent of Japanese said the growing number of older people in the country is a “major problem,” the highest of any nation surveyed.72
Projections that Japan’s population will plummet without a commitment to increased immigration have not changed the country’s policies. “The basic mindset in Japan is it’s not a country that accepts immigrants,” said James Dougherty, an attorney at Hikari Sogoh in Tokyo and a life-long resident of Japan with American-born parents. “Even with the concerns about population reduction, that has not changed.”73
The American occupying force after World War II established the basic structure of Japan’s immigration system. A 1989 law enacted reforms, and a 2012 law and recent revisions have sought to open the door wider to highly skilled foreign nationals, while maintaining restrictive policies toward lower-skilled workers and immigration more generally.
“Japanese society does not have a tradition like in America of Chinese-Japanese or Indian-Japanese,” said James Dougherty. “Here you are told to lose your previous identity.”74 But without increased immigration there will be fewer people to tell others to lose their identity — or to fill lower-skilled jobs and support government programs for the elderly.
Despite a general prohibition on the entry of lower-skilled workers, Japan’s policies are surprisingly open toward high-skilled immigration. Attorneys report low denial rates and no quotas for employers wishing to hire or transfer in high-skilled foreign nationals. Even policies on foreign entrepreneurs are moderately favorable.
The years of little to no economic growth have lessened pressure on the country’s leaders to open Japan’s doors wider to immigration. Japanese businesses are generally not active advocates for pro-growth immigration policies. If the policies of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can spur the Japanese economy, then the greater demand for labor and the increase in job openings could encourage businesses to press for more favorable policies on lower-skilled workers and permanent residence.
70. Rakesh Kochhar (February 3, 2014), “10 Projections for the Global Population in 2050,” Pew Research Center.
72. Pew Research Center (January 30, 2014), Attitudes About Aging: A Global Perspective.
73. Interview with James Dougherty.