What could be scarier than imagining your entire culture collapsing? With the current demographic projections, this may be a reality for Japan in the not too distant future. Population decline, starting around the 1970s, has been steady and consistently troubling there. The widely accepted causes of this decline include very low birth rates, very long life expectancies, and a lack of foreign nationals living in the country. In addition to simply not producing enough Japanese people, the country also has to deal with issues that may sound familiar to us here: rising demand and cost of octogenarian health care, lower contributions into national social security programs, and a shrinking skilled labor force.
For many outsiders, the solutions to these issues might not seem so radical, and they focus primarily on two solutions in particular: increased immigration of skilled laborers and programs to assess and increase fertility rates.
Immigration (and labor, for that matter) has been a hot-button issue in Japan for decades. People from all over the world have been interested in coming to Japan for the reliable work, higher pay, and safe community life that country has to offer. Significant groups include Koreans, Brazilians (many of Japanese background), and English speakers from many different countries. With the waning numbers of native-born, working-age individuals, it would be reasonable for Japan to slacken up the immigration restrictions and get this issue resolved. Generally, though, Japan has done just the opposite: either restricting entry of foreigners in the first place, and sending back some of the foreigners that were already working there.
That may be changing, however. Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have began to initiate immigration programs targeted at skilled foreign works, such as engineers and health care professionals annually by approximately 100,000. This would be a significant boon to labor and with that, the (floundering) economy, as spending on consumables and durables will likely increase. And radical conservatives, please calm down: these workers will not automatically try to become Japanese citizens and do all the things you’re afraid of, like diluting the native culture or the gene pool. The time has come, perhaps, for Japan’s more outspoken conservatives to put aside their fears about immigration and realize that these people can–and if allowed to, will–fill in the gaps in employment that their country simply does not have the human capital to fulfill.
So that will help to solve the short-term labor problem, but what about the long term population problem?
For this, I turn to marriage and fertility. There has been a lot of focus on the decline of marriage rates, and the associated low fertility. Certainly valid issues. But what about Infertility? The already troubling statistic of single-person households reaching over 30% may be hiding a larger problem: what’s happening with those 70% that are listed as married or single family households? While the demography is certainly more complicated than that, it does speak to the possibility of an actual infertility crisis. Just like many couples in America are dealing with infertility and the associated stigma, Japanese couples are facing the same problem. The prospect for increased birth rates under the right social and medical conditions are fantastic.
In an effort to address this issue, Abe is at it again. The Diet is considering allowing Japanese life insurance companies to cover fertility treatments, including more expensive in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments, as early as 2014. Now, the Japanese National Health Insurance (JHI) system does cover some fertility treatment costs, but in a country with extremely low birth rate figures, it doesn’t seem sufficient. Currently JHI will cover up to 150,000 yen per treatment cycle, or about the first $1500. However, considering that it usually takes a few tries to be successful (i.e.: pregnant), and with each treatment cycle costing several hundred thousand yen, this aid begins to be less and less helpful. Critics of even this policy have said that couples who cannot afford these fertility treatments shouldn’t be provided with financial assistance in the first place, because they suspect that this indicates an inability to financially care for the child these treatments are intended to produce. While there may be a nugget of value to this, it obscures the larger problem: that there are a large number of people in Japan who actually want to get pregnant. With the lowest birth rates in the world as of 2012, it is amazing to think that there are enough couples in the country willing to undergo these personal, painful processes, to garner the full attention of the Diet. In this case, it might be worth it to give these couples a pass on the up-front costs and help them complete the process. Increased fertility yields more births, and more births mean that the Japanese might not, demographically speaking, fall off the face of the earth after all!
Japan doesn’t have to make the sacrifices they think they do, and there are solutions to the very serious problems of labor shortage and population decline. Immigration will solve the labor problem short term. More widely available fertility treatments (and thus increased population growth) will solve to labor problem and stabilize the population long term. Embracing both demographic options would broaden and diversify the Japanese population and give the culture a much needed jump start. Demographic issues aside, that’s really great in and of itself.
Image source: China Daily