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Demographic Demons: How Will Japan Weather the Coming Storm?

When you live in another country for a number of years, as indeed I have in Japan, there comes a point where you have to finally emerge from your self-imposed “expat bubble”.

If, as I do, you have real designs on making this foreign land your permanent home, then you will also become aware of some of the flaws in the country. It is when that honeymoon period expires, that one begins to consider the serious implications of a life spent in such a way.

For someone planning to settle in Japan, the “demographic time bomb” is one of our most pressing concerns.

Putting it bluntly, the Japanese aren’t having enough babies. As a result, the population is ageing rapidly. This has a variety of knock-on effects. As more of these seniors retire, the burdens on both the healthcare sector and the government pension coffers are further intensified.

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Younger people are having to pay in more, and will, in the fullness of time, probably get back a lot less. Labour shortages are also a growing problem as fewer fresh graduates come through each year to bolster the workforce and replace the droves of retirees, and more importantly for the government, fewer tax-paying, and working-age citizens.

When you put it all together it does, admittedly, paint a rather grim picture. However all is not lost and there are a number of ways in which I believe Japan can tackle this problem, and ensure that Japanese society continues to thrive well into the next century and beyond.

Work life balance is a key issue in all of this. Whilst the old cliché of “living to work” as opposed to “working to live” could certainly be applied to Japan, that is oversimplifying the issue. The current economic climate does, some commentators believe, predicate a necessity for longer hours and fewer staff. This has the knock-on effect of people having less chances to socialize, and therefore less chances to meet a significant other and procreate.

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However, the advent of new technologies could, in the near future, mean a lot of the work we do at the office could be done at home. This will, hopefully, lead to a break from the old culture of assessing Japanese office staff on the hours they spend in the workplace, rather than the quality of the work produced therein.

If workers were evaluated on quality of work produced rather than time spent producing it then not only would we see happier, healthier workers, more willing to have families, but also, in the fullness of time, a noticeable increase in worker productivity.

Childcare is another area where further efforts are needed. In this day and age, the all too familiar role of the doting housewife and hard-working husband, is becoming increasingly archaic. As women in Japan continue to break societal norms and force their way into more positions of authority in Japan, fewer of them seem content to just settle for having babies at home and instead are opting to continue working after marriage.

Therefore, the only way we can encourage these women to have children is by making it possible for them to balance a career and a family. This is where we hit a major roadblock, as it were.

Photo : Pieterjan Vandaele on Flickr

Whilst Japanese society does continue to make huge progress beyond its rather misogynistic past, the idea of the working mother does, to a large extent, still remain a social taboo. In a society where a mother is expected to put her children before all other considerations, even her husband, continuing to work full-time after having a child is still regarded by many as deeply irresponsible behavior.

Overcoming these gender stereotypes, with the hundreds of years of engrained historical precedent behind them is perhaps, the single greatest challenge Japanese society faces today.

There is one final idea to improve Japan’s predicament, one that has worked well in other countries, yet remains something of a “bad word” to Japanese conservatives: immigration.

Despite having around 2 million foreign residents, Japan’s population remains more than 98% Japanese. One conservative commentator even went so far as to describe Japan as an “Ethnically homogenous nation.” Of course anyone with even a basic grasp of the history or understanding of the biological make-up of east Asia will tell you that this is nothing more than small-minded, blinkered nonsense.

Photo : Stefan Lins on Flickr

However, even moderates in Japan’s political classes remain concerned about the possible negative impact a sudden influx of foreign workers could have. That being said, as we can see from the example of the UK, where, despite various right-wing rags masquerading a newspapers trying to claim otherwise, multiculturalism continues to be a huge success, immigration, if managed correctly brings in far more benefits than it does problems.

In addition to providing a new source of hard-working, tax paying citizens, it will also benefit Japan in a number of other, less obvious ways.

For starters, hearing more foreign languages being spoken in their daily lives will hopefully encourage Japanese people to develop a greater awareness, not just of language, but also of the wider world.

It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand, and I truly believe that almost all of Japan’s problems in interacting with its neighbours and the wider international community come not from racism, hatred or false notions of supremacy, but from a genuine lack of understanding and empathy with other countries.

Having more foreigners around would massively improve this situation.

The next few years will be tough for Japan, with the demographic time bomb just one of a number of national and international challenges this nation and its people will have to face.

Like all such challenges though, with the right combination of brave leadership, collective will of the people and a bit of good, old-fashioned luck, they can be overcome.

People tell me Japanese society will never change. No doubt those same people, or their parents, would have said 30 years ago that gay couples would never be able to marry, that South Africa would never be administrated by the ANC and that the US would never elect a black president.

In the fullness of time, all things change, modernization and enlightenment are inevitable, even in a place that remains as socially conservative as Japan. I face my future here not with worry, but with a hope and determination to, at least in some small part, help to build a better future for this land.

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