Feb. 6th, 2010

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Someone sent me to read John Haffner's interesting blog post Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan. It's about Japan "growing old", and it's of particular relevance to me because it's an ambition of mine to grow old as an immigrant in Japan.

Now, I'm not really the sort of immigrant John Haffner has in mind as a solution for Japan's ills. Although English-speaking Westerners do figure in his prescriptions, he sees young, dynamic, entrepreneurial people -- many from surrounding Asian countries -- as the only way to kick the nation off a demographic course which, left unchecked, will see its population shrink from 127 to less than 100 million people by 2050. Niken and Mahesa, two charming Javanese students we befriended in Tokyo in December, might fit the bill better.

Niken and Mahesa plan to go back to Jakarta when their studies are over. But they'd certainly be an asset to Japan: stylish, resourceful, trilingual, full of good ideas, ambitious and friendly, they could represent one future for a Japan even I've reproached for entering a navel-gazing new period of sakoku, or cultural isolation. Other contenders might be the family of Malaysian restauranteurs we dined with in Osaka in early December. Inter-marrying with Japanese, they were bringing members of their Malaysian families up to Japan one by one.

As once-solid mega-corporations like Toyota and JAL begin to wobble badly, as Japan's debt approaches 200% of its GDP, and as China overtakes to become the world's number two economic power, it's clear that something has to change in Japan. As Haffner points out, "whereas 11 workers supported two retirees in 1960, the ratio was four workers to one retiree in 1999, and by 2050 the UN projects that only 1.7 workers will support one retiree. Those workers will face a heavy burden," and "the continual improvement in living standards the Japanese have enjoyed during the last half-century will come to an end.”

After making an enthusiastic case for increasing Japanese immigration, though, Haffner admits it just isn't likely to happen: "The country is likely to do no more than tinker with its immigration levels. By implication, therefore, Japan is also likely to become a smaller, more debt-laden and less productive country in the coming decades."

So that's the change we're most likely to see: shrinkage, decline, deflation. Ha, exactly the same processes I expect to see in myself over the next thirty years! Maybe Japan will be the perfect place to grow old!

Given that we're not likely to see a sudden immigration-powered economic miracle in Japan, or a sudden massive baby boom (despite the government basically paying people to have kids), is there a silver lining to Japan's likely silver age? I think there could be several. Let's list them.

* According to Iwao Fujimasa, a demographer with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, depopulation could depress the real estate market and affect the financial standing of banks dependent on real estate prices. In other words, cheaper house and rental prices in Japan! Yay!

* Fujimasa thinks that population decline will boost gender equality, break down generation gaps and bring a more relaxed way of living. Land prices will fall, people will be able to afford bigger homes, and the daily crush on trains will be lessened. (Population decline not all bad news, Japan Times)

* Then there's the argument that we need to stop promoting endless economic growth as the only goal. As Sakamoto put it: "The current economic system has required people to be busy trying to achieve growth -- it's as though they're continually riding a bicycle. People have to do things fast to meet the demand for excessive efficiency.... I think it would be better if Japan became a beautiful third-rate country. It would be nice if Japan was a place of delicious food, beautiful scenery and abundant nature. If that were the case, I think it wouldn't matter if one had little money."

* This could, in other words, be Japan's midlife crisis, and the best thing about a midlife crisis is that it's an opportunity to ask some basic questions: "Is that all there is?" and "What really matters to me?" Trying to catch Japanese artists in the act of asking these questions is the whole premise of the Aftergold art show I'm currently putting together.

* Interviewed by De:bug magazine in November for their Japan special, I was asked to clarify my views on immigration in Japan. The editors had been troubled by some comments I'd made, and said they had a different definition of multiculturalism from mine. I responded that while I'm very much in favour of immigration to Europe, I felt that many of the things I value about Japan are only possible because of the high level of trust, harmony and homogeneity that exists there.

* "To impose exactly the same sort of multiculturalism worldwide would not be multiculturalism at all, but a kind of monoculture. It would result in a decrease in diversity," I added. "Japan is not a hegemonic power in the world today. The US is. Therefore, I see the maintenance of Japaneseness as a form of resistance struggle. It opposes the homogenising globalisation which proposes the US model as the one we must all follow."

* It's also important to remember that there is a conflict between internal population diversity on the national level and global cultural diversity. Global cultural diversity can only flourish if there are distinct "flavours" and identities, which are often maintained by the restriction, on a national level, of diversity. This is a swings-and-roundabouts argument. Just as Japanese women may benefit from the lack of immigrants on the Japanese job market, so the failure of internal diversity may be the success of international diversity.

Let's be clear: I'd love DPJ prime minister Hatoyama's cherished personal vision of an Asian monetary and political union modeled on the European vision of Jacques Delors and Count Coudenhove-Kalergi to be realised. I'd love Japan to be filled with young, visionary and dynamic people like Niken and Mahesa, or like Hisae's Korean mother, for that matter. I think these immigrants do and would continue to expand Japan's culture in interesting ways. And I have an obvious personal interest in Japan's visa requirements getting loosened so that people like me can "flood in" and "swamp" the nation.

But realistically that ain't gonna happen. Not in my lifetime, anyway. So all I'm saying is that the alternative is interesting too. Japan will get cheaper, smaller, poorer, purer, wiser, more itself. Rather than forging new forms of industry and commerce (same old thing, same old bling), Japan will from now on be pioneering new ways of living; post-industrial, post-materialist, post-wealth, post-growth. This is something the world doesn't know much about yet. How to live longer, live better, yet live cheaper, live smaller. How to live for the pure joy of living, not for the grim accumulation of money. How to "decline successfully". How to be wise. Show us how it's done, Japan!


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