Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Can embracing diversity solve Japan’s population problems?

Reading Time: 5 mins
Interpreter Dang Nguyen Thuc Vien, centre, the daughter of refugees from South Vietnam, helps a Vietnamese resident at a hospital in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo. If controls were relaxed, immigration could initially focus on the needs of specific industries (Photo: Yuya Shino/Reuters).

In Brief

Japan’s population has been falling since 2011. In 2014 Japan’s total fertility rate stood at 1.42 children per woman — one of the lowest in the OECD. Population decline has led to labour shortages, decreased consumption and a related hit to the economy, with GDP growth at an anaemic 0.8 per cent in 2015.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Decreased tax revenues further raise the spectre that social welfare programs, such as social security-type benefits paid to the elderly, may no longer be fiscally sustainable in the near future. Embracing diversity is a key factor in solving these issues.

In Japan discussions of diversity tend to focus on gender. In 2015 Japan’s central government passed the Act for the Empowerment of Women in the Workforce. This legislation sought to both, encourage women to stay in the workforce after starting a family, and to encourage businesses to promote women to positions of power.

Around 60 per cent of Japanese women leave the workforce after having their first child. A primary cause for this labour-related exile is the state of Japan’s childcare system. Restrictions on immigration have limited the number and affordability of home-based childcare providers. Most women who choose to continue working after having a child are forced to seek out a coveted spot in a nursery for their newborns.

In April 2015, some 23,000 Japanese families could not find a suitable nursery for their children to attend. This has become so common that the term taiki jidō, or ‘waiting children’, has been coined to describe the situation. Women struggle to balance work and children. This dichotomy has created a scenario in which women must choose one over the other.

Since becoming mayor of Otsu four years ago, I’ve focused a great deal of energy on improving childcare programs and encouraging women to stay in the workforce. To achieve this, I’ve increased city subsidies to private nurseries and have successfully pushed for the construction of 29 new nurseries able to accommodate around 2000 children. This objective has become even more vital as the birth rate in Otsu has recently increased and the number of full-time working mothers with children under the age of five has doubled.

Working women also face difficulties in climbing the corporate ladder. Only 7.5 per cent of Japanese corporate executives are female. To address this, the Act requires certain companies to set goals to increase the number of female managers. While it is heartening to see such action from the Japanese government, it is essential to note that only 12 per cent of national legislators, 4 per cent of governors and 1 per cent of mayors are women. When first elected mayor of Otsu at 36, I was the youngest woman ever elected mayor of a Japanese city.

The situation is the same at Otsu City Hall. Though technically speaking 22 per cent of City Hall employees holding management positions are women, if nurses and kindergarten teachers are excluded the number falls to 5 per cent. To address this issue, I set up a committee to improve the work environment for women. Some women on the committee have said that they do not want to be promoted because promotion may require them to work longer hours. Unlike their husbands, they stress that they are often also responsible for household chores, taking care of older family members and child-rearing.

In Japan, long work hours and working overtime are considered the norm. But labour productivity is lower than in many other OECD countries. To improve this, Otsu City Hall now allows overtime only two days a week. We have also been shifting the employee evaluation system from one based on hours worked to one that stresses results and efficiency.

Though women are granted legal equality under the Japanese constitution, true equality has yet to be attained in practice. It is important that women be able to stay in the workforce after they have children and that they be able to take on the same leadership roles as men in the workplace. If more women had children while staying in the workforce, the birth rate would also likely rise, further minimising the population crisis that Japan faces and addressing the ongoing labour shortage. An OECD survey indicated that granting such employment equality to women in Japan would increase GDP by an additional 20 per cent over the next 20 years.

Another solution to population decline is immigration. Though Japan has extremely strict immigration controls, more immigration could initially be centred on specific industries. For example, Japan currently suffers from a lack of professionals working in both child and senior care. This is a critical reason why many cities cannot provide enough nurseries for their citizens.

Due to high costs, Japanese people rarely have home-based nannies or domestic carers. The Japanese government is very restrictive in issuing visas to foreigners who intend to work as either domestic workers or nannies, and these restrictions greatly affect the cost of these services. The national government has recently begun to select several designated test cities where foreigners with special visas are permitted to do such work.

Unlike other OECD countries, a discussion on immigration has yet to begin in Japan. Anti-immigrant sentiments recently emanating from the United Kingdom and other countries in the European Union will likely further delay liberalisation of Japan’s immigration policy.

Japan’s population is declining rapidly, and the nation is being forced to make a choice about how to move forward. Fear of change and the consequent inaction will likely lead to a shrinking economy and cuts to public services and facilities. Japan must chose the path of diversity in embracing an inclusive society open to women, non-ethnic Japanese and many other people. Diversity is not only a human rights issue but, in the case of Japan, a key policy solution.

Naomi Koshi is the mayor of Otsu, Japan.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Reinventing Japan’.

4 responses to “Can embracing diversity solve Japan’s population problems?”

  1. It is heartening that a mayor of a medium sized city has taken action to increase the number of daycare/nursery school programs when the central government has failed to do so. I think Governor Koike has talked about doing more about this. I hope she and other mayors will do so. Maybe they can shame PM Abe into doing more….MUCH more!

    I believe that the 2015 Act for the Empowerment, etc lacks any real enforcement teeth. Also lacks any tax incentives to try to get corporations to hire and promote more women into positions of authority. As with most of Abenomics and Womenomics it is mostly smoke and mirrors. Or as Shakespeare once said, “a lot of noise signifying nothing.”

    While changes in immigration policy offer the potential for substantial long term benefits to Japan, I would not hold my breath waiting for these to happen. The Japanese are one of the least welcoming people when it comes to inviting, let alone integrating, people of other nationalities to join their ‘family.’

    • Well, sometimes I wonder why people go to emigrate to other countries and then expect those countries to accommodate them on anything and everything.

      In the USA for example, you have government agencies that have to print out various brochures like driving tests in several languages because a lot of immigrants don’t speak, read, and write English as a second language. Many of them also have incentives not to learn the language because nowadays there are TV channels, radio channels, newspapers, and magazines that are in their own language.

      Finally, many of these immigrants don’t want to integrate and prefer to live their own community plus jealousy keeping their own values and beliefs while not seem to care about the others’ beliefs and values. In Great Britain, for example, the British had a problem with honor killings and the various ethnic communities refuse to help the British police plus the immigrants failed to understand that while they could do honor killing in their own country, they could not do it in a country like Britain.

      In Canada, you have wealthy people from China buying up property in places like Vancouver, thus making it impossible for ordinary Canadian citizens to live in that city plus displacing the people who have been living in Vancouver for decades and have no elsewhere to go.

  2. The answer is NO. And I say that not because I’m against immigration or foreigners. I say that because it’s a mathematical impossibility.

    People often use simple math to look at population decline. But what’s really important is to look at the OADR: old age dependency ratio, combined with how the fertility ratios change for foreigners that immigrate, and factor in how the birth rate changes per age, and the age (and sex and marriage/family status) of foreigners that immigrate changes.

    Let’s take my favorite example, Germany, because it’s birth rate is almost identical to Japan, yet it has so much more in its favor to solve the problem (land borders, a language easier than Japanese, better English adoption, open borders with the rest of Europe, and literally millions of immigrants flooding in)
    Germany has a birthrate of around 1.36 kids per woman. That’s almost the lowest in Europe. Making it very similar to (actually, LOWER than) Japan’s.

    No problem, you think: they just let in over a million migrants!

    Sorry, nope. Believe it or not: Nowhere Near Enough. Germany would need 261 million net immigrants over 90 years to stabilize the old-age dependency ratio (OADR)! Averaged out, that’s 2.9 MILLION permanent (that never leave) migrants a year. In other words, if we take the Syrian refugee crisis, and made sure that we had THREE of those every year (!) for almost the next hundred years, then yeah, Germany can keep it’s current birth rate. You might as well change the current language, laws, food and constitution of Germany, though, because if you import that many people that fast, they won’t need to either assimilate or integrate. It will effectively be a new dominate ethnicity and the existing ethnicity will be wiped out due to natural selection.

    Ah, but what about migrants from the rest of EU, no, you think? The good old Schengen Zone will save Germany with that open migration! Sorry, but the entire continent of Europe, on average has a declining birth rate problem. They can’t make up for Germany’s (or their own) losses. Not just the population of Germany (as well as Italy and Spain) are declining by as much as 30% to 40% per generation. At current levels of fertility, Germany’s population would have to increase to roughly 490 million people through immigration to prevent further population aging.

    Regardless of whether you’re for or against large scale open immigration, immigration will not solve the population/ageing problem. Either in Germany or especially Japan.

  3. I think that embracing diversity will not help Japan or any other nation to solve a population problem. As I argue in a comment on this article( it is much better to change the economic policy.

    But why not diversity? Even though I am not against diversity per se, I am against forcing diversity on a society. This because I think it will only lead to conflicts in society and that will be very costly. Because if we want to promote diversity we have to give some groups special privileges, for example women or foreigners. If we give one group these privileges, groups who don’t get these privileges will feel unfair. But the first group will feel that they apparently deserve these privileges, because they are declared ‘victims’ by the government. So it only leads a conflict between groups and it will damage the harmony in Japanese society.

    I think we have to accept that society is not always as diverse and equal as we want. We can better introduce a good economic policy and make everyone better off so they can easier deal with a world which is not perfectly fair. Of course when we talk about abuse or violence against women or anyone else we should punish it harshly.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.