HIMEJI, Japan — With their tidy suburban home here, a
late-model Toyota in the
driveway and two school-age children whose Japanese is indistinguishable
from any native's, Akio Nakashima and his wife, Yoshie, are the perfect
Though Vietnamese by origin, as fellow Asians they would be hard to
pick out out in a crowd. Through years of diligent study they have
mastered this country's difficult language. They even adopted Japanese
Outside the workplace, though, in 21 years in this country, where they
arrived as boat people in 1982, the Nakashimas have never managed to make
friends. Even that is a petty concern compared with the worry that
troubles their sleep.
"As far as my life goes, it doesn't matter if I am Vietnamese or
Japanese," said Mr. Nakashima, 36, an engineer at a tire factory. "My
biggest worry is prejudice and discrimination against my children. We pay
the same taxes as anyone else, but will our children be able to work for a
big company, or get jobs as civil servants?"
Many economists and demographers here and abroad say Japan's success or
failure in addressing the concerns of immigrants like the Nakashimas will
go a long way toward determining whether this country remains an economic
powerhouse or its population shrivels and the slow fade of its economy
turns into a rout.
Japan is at the leading edge of a phenomenon that is beginning to
strike many advanced countries: rapidly aging populations and dwindling
fertility. The size of this country's work force peaked in 1998 and has
since entered a decline that experts expect to accelerate.
midcentury, demographers say, Japan will have 30 percent fewer
people, and one million 100-year-olds. By then, 800,000 more people will
die each year than are born. By century's end, the United Nations
estimates, the present population of 120 million will be cut in half.
Better integration of women into the workplace may help in the short
term, but experts say the only hope for stabilizing the population is
large-scale immigration, sustained over many years.
Failing that, the consequences could include not only a scarcity of
workers and falling demand, but also a collapse of the pension system as
the tax base shrinks and the elderly population booms.
To stave off such a disaster, Japan would need 17 million new
immigrants by 2050, according to a recent United Nations report. Other
estimates have said Japan would need 400,000 new immigrants each year.
But Japan is the most tenaciously insular of all the world's top
industrial countries, and deeply conservative notions about ethnic purity
make it hard for even the experts here to envision large-scale
Seventeen million immigrants, as the United Nations forecasts, would
represent 18 percent of the population in a country where immigrants now
amount to only one percent.
Even that modest figure consists mostly of second- and third-generation
Koreans and Chinese whose ancestors were brought to Japan when it
maintained colonies on the Asian mainland. As the
Vietnam, know all too well, even long-term immigrants face frequent
discrimination and are not accepted as "real" Japanese.
"The kind of figures the demographers talk about are unimaginable for
Japan," said Hiroshi Komai, a population expert at Tsukuba University. "In
a quarter-century we have only absorbed one million immigrants.
"Societies have always risen and faded, and Japan will likely disappear
and something else will take its place, but that's not such a problem.
Greece and Rome disappeared too."
Mr. Komai's belief that Japan cannot absorb newcomers is free of the
nativism that is common among members of the conservative political
leadership. Rather, he insists, it grows out of a realistic appraisal of
his country's social limitations, including those of its workplace culture
and educational system.
English-language skills in Japan, for example, rank along with North
Korea's among the worst in Asia, making it difficult to attract
international talent to its universities.
Because of those issues and the society's insularity, Mr. Komai said,
the country can probably absorb no more than 200,000 newcomers over the
next decade — a far cry from what the experts say is needed.
The government appears to agree and has planned to encourage only a
kind of "high end" immigration that would be limited to those with
specialized knowledge or skills.
Many critics say even that strategy may fail, as Japan is increasingly
incapable of competing for foreign brainpower, not only against the United
States and Western Europe, but also against South Korea and China, which
are seen as lands of far greater opportunity.
In a much noted recent speech, Hiroshi Okuda, president of the Japanese
Business Federation, made an implicit appeal for broader immigration.
"People stress the fruit of the
I.T. revolution for the drastic economic
advance of the United States during the 1990's," he said. "But we cannot
overlook the fact that the influx of foreigners at a rate of a million per
year supported this economic growth." The government's stated preference
for highly skilled immigrants also runs up against tradition, which has
always favored allowing small numbers of immigrants to perform dirty,
dangerous and difficult jobs.
In those sectors, signs are multiplying that pragmatic thinking is
beginning to win out, as small, mostly illegal communities of immigrants
take root here and there.
Already the construction industry makes widespread use of immigrants,
mostly from other Asian countries, to fill the most dangerous and
"We have already reached the point where the Japanese economy cannot
function without foreign workers," said Mioko Honda, a leader of the
two-year-old Union of Migrant Workers. "The construction companies use
Thais and Filipinos by day, because they are inconspicuous, and Africans
and others are used at night or in factory work."
The integration of even these workers has been less than perfect, and
points to the challenges ahead. Mr. Honda's group was founded to help
illegal foreign workers recover wages or benefits owed them by
A visit to one of the union's offices, in Kawasaki, an industrial city
near Tokyo, turned up a impressively varied group of immigrants — from
Peru, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Bolivia.
As impressive were their problems and complaints. All said they had
overstayed their visas, had been injured on the job and left to fend for
themselves, or had not received wages promised them.
"When I had my accident on the job last December, my employer just
dropped me off at the hospital," said Geronimo
Lutsiang, 51, a Filipino
who did demolition work on construction sites. "Since then he hasn't paid
me any of the money he owes me. My right hand is useless now, and there's
no way I can survive without work in Japan, the most expensive place in
If the central government has yet to grapple with the issue, in the
modest city of Himeji, where the Vietnamese community numbers about 1,000,
the future is now.
Here in a cluster of five-story buildings on the edge of this city
about 275 miles west of Tokyo live many of the Vietnamese immigrants who
work nearby in the leather factories that were once the main employer of
Japan's own untouchables, the
Iba, an official in the prefecture's public housing
department, explained that relations were badly strained between Japanese
and foreign residents of the city's low-rise apartment complexes.
"Integration is easy to call for, but it is very difficult to achieve,"
he said. "You just can't tell people that they must adjust to others." The
Japanese residents complained that the Vietnamese parked their cars
illegally, paid no heed to strict garbage dumping rules and often sang
karaoke loudly late at night.
But a remedy was eventually worked out, through countless meetings and
visits by city officials. The housing complexes have recently set an
informal 10 percent limit on the numbers of Vietnamese in any one building
— a tipping point, as it were.
"I've lived both before the war and after, so I've seen a lot," said
Fusae Hirata, a 78-year-old widower, who is the president of the complex's
elderly residents' association. "I try to be stern with people when they
are doing something wrong, even if it means they will hate me, but I also
give praise when things are done well.
"We are not refusing to take foreigners. We've all got the same red
blood, and as long as we can communicate, things will be