The greatest crisis facing Japan is its population problem. Japan’s population has been on the decline since 2010. In 2015, the population appeared to be shrinking at a rate of 270,000 people per year. Recent projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research show that even steeper declines are ahead. The population is expected to fall by 6.2 million in the 2020s, 8.2 million in the 2030s and 9 million in the 2040s — meaning a drop-off larger than the population of Tokyo every two decades.

Japan’s aging society and diminishing birth rate are also of concern. The elderly accounted for 26 percent of the country’s population in 2014 and those aged 80 years or older exceeded 10 million in 2015. At the same time, the number of births in 2016 fell below one million for the first time since statistics have been collected.

There is also a growing need for professionals to provide nursing care for this burgeoning elderly population, with demand expected to exceed supply by 370,000 caregivers in 2025. With a reduced workforce, the unemployment rate in July 2017 stood at a historical low of 2.8 percent. Teikoku Databank has also announced that bankruptcies due to labour shortages in the first half of 2017 were up by 290 percent from four years ago. The economic impacts of the labour shortage are becoming apparent.

In 2014, the post of Minister of State for the Promotion of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalising Local Economy in Japan was created and an enormous budget allocated to address this serious population decline. But there has been no progress in achieving the aims of maintaining the overall population and rectifying the excessive concentration of population and industry in Tokyo.

Indeed, the influx of people into the Tokyo Metropolitan Area from the rest of the country has actually increased. The birth rate has also seen little change and the total fertility rate for 2016 was 1.44 children per woman, a far cry from the 2.07 level needed to keep the population level constant.

In the face of such a serious population problem, it might be expected that immigration policy would be a hot topic of discussion. But the current administration has shown no intention of adopting measures to encourage immigration. As a result, no vigorous debates on immigration policy are taking place in Japan.

The primary reason that the government has avoided the issue of immigration is the extremely negative connotations it carries with the Japanese public. Many citizens presume that a policy favourable to immigration would lead to a massive influx of unruly foreigners unable to speak Japanese who would disrupt Japan’s domestic harmonious society. The idea that the country would be taken over by Chinese immigrants also enjoys wide currency.

The government has neglected to make sufficient efforts to provide the public with correct information on immigration to broaden deliberation on an objective immigration policy. As a consequence, the government is unable to initiate discussions on immigration policy despite the severe population decline.

The shortage of labor led to a sharp rise in the number of foreign residents in 2016. At the end of 2016, there were 2.38 million foreign residents in Japan — 148,959 more than at the end of 2015. In each of Japan’s 47 rural and urban prefectures, the number of resident foreigners rose. It has become increasingly frequent in recent years for foreign nationals to come to Japan on student visas but then find employment as labourers, or to work under the Technical Internship Training Program (TITP) which was ostensibly designed for technology transfer to developing countries.

TITP is internationally criticised for many cases of human rights violations. Further, the number of absconders from TITP has nearly tripled in last three years. While these approaches may help secure workers on a temporary basis, they will not serve as medium-to-long term solutions to the population issue. The current refusal of the government to officially admit foreign labourers heightens the risks of illegal work becoming more common and of more foreign nationals staying in the country illegally.

At the grassroots level, local governments and non-governmental organizations have offered support to foreign residents for the past 20 years or more, despite the lack of a national immigration policy. Forty percent of local governments have formulated a "multicultural coexistence promotion plan" to support foreign residents. One idea that has garnered considerable media interest is that young foreigners able to speak Japanese to some degree should be accepted in phases from Japan-friendly countries by establishing the requisite frameworks at both the national and local levels. The general populace is gradually coming to an understanding of the need for an immigration policy.

Developing an immigration policy suitable for Japan is essential to abate the population decline and ensure the sustainability of Japanese society. Accepting immigrants would secure vital labour resources. In addition, the ambition and drive of immigrants could inspire Japanese youth to enter a relationship of cooperation and friendly competition with the immigrants, providing the trump card needed to revive Japan’s fortunes. This might also prove effective in overcoming the insular mindset of many Japanese people and in alleviating feelings of unease about the future.

Time is running out for Japan. For the sake of a brighter future, a national debate on accepting immigrants should be started and the government should adopt more proactive approaches.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.