It’s well know that Japan is facing demographic trends that are challenging beyond any country’s previous experience. The aging and shrinking of the Japanese population have contributed in a major way to slower growth Andy larger fiscal deficits over the last two decades. More recently, labor shortages have emerged in selected industries, including construction and retail services. Despite this, Japan has taken a decidedly negative view of immigration.
Is this changing, at least a little?
It appears that the Abe administration is pursuing a “stealth” immigration program, with the number of foreign workers in the country set to top one million for the first time in 2016. These workers are typically in the country on short-term arrangements, including “training” programs ( which often provides little training and have raised concerns over poor treatment), and the idea of allowing permanent residents or a path to citizenship remains quite, well, foreign. Nevertheless, with policy-makers clearly aware of the need to attract significant numbers of foreign workers into the future, the possibility of offering longer and more attractive would seem to be in the cards.
There are hints as well that attitudes toward what it means to be Japanese may also have begun to shift. As one small piece of evidence, the last two Miss Japan beauty contests winners have been of mixed racial/ethnic make-up, a development which would have been unthinkable in the past. There may be a generational change taking place in Japanese attitudes.
The other major response to a shrinking workforce has been the forts undertaken in recent years to eliminate workplace discrimination and encourage female labor force participation. While Japan remains well behind most other advanced economies on these issues, there are again some signs of progress. For instance, economy-wide increase in labor force participation in the last few years has been led by women and policies to eliminate tax- and pension-related disincentives for female participation may soon be lifted.
Also, an extremely casual and non-scientific survey of Japanese television and films suggest and increased awareness of the problems that women confront in the workplace. A string of recent Japanese dramas, with names like “Age Harrassment” and “Black President” (this refers to presidents of companies with poor work environments, and is not a racial allusion) show hard-working and effective female employees stymied by sexist attitudes among their largely male managers. Perhaps we are seeing the start of some important attitudinal shifts in this area as well?
Finally, women have taken a number of extremely high political positions in recent months–including as Governor of Tokyo, Ministry of Defense and the head of the main opposition party. (The last of these, Renho, also has one parent from Taiwan and, until recently continued it hold her Taiwan passport–both of which may have been “disqualifying” just a few years ago.) These three women are perhaps the three leading candidates to serve as the next Japanese Prime Minister which would serve both as a sign of continuing change and as an impetus for furthering progress.