There is no escaping the fact that the populations of Japan and Taiwan are shrinking, and a more relaxed policy on immigration and naturalization could be the answer to the crisis.

An immigration policy that focuses on naturalizing East Asians, who account for the majority of the foreign populations in both countries, is an overlooked potential avenue for countering the population problem, and could provide a stepping stone to a wider embrace of multiculturalism that looks further afield for potential new citizens.

The population problem

A recent Japan Times article matter-of-factly reports that 2017 marked the seventh consecutive year of declining population in Japan, while the proportion of those over the age of 65 had hit an unprecedented 27.7 percent.

The same article, quoting government figures, paints grim prospects for Japan’s demographics. The current population of 126.7 million is forecast to fall to below 100 million by 2053, before plummeting to 88.1 million by 2065, by which time the number of over people over 65 is projected to account for 38.4 percent of the population.



Caring for Taiwan's elderly will be a massive challenge as the country's birthrate declines.

As for Taiwan, Taiwan News notes that the 2018 population of 23 million is forecast to shrink to 18 million by 2061, a precipitous 20 percent drop. Taiwan Premier William Lai (賴清德) also recently acknowledged that the population would start to shrink in 2025.

Aging and fertility rates

High standards of living and top-notch health services in both countries have boosted life expectancy, placing a burden on the rest of society that is exacerbated by anemic birthrates.

A recent report shows that the proportion of elderly residents in Taiwan will rise from 14 percent today to more than 20 percent in 2025. Taiwan will then join Japan as one of the world’s few “super-aged” societies, classified as those with more than a fifth of the population aged over 65 years old.

Financial Times notes that births in Japan hit a historic low in 2017, while yearly population decline hit a historic high. A low total fertility rate, or average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime, of 1.44 in Japan and 1.13 for Taiwan, are well below the replacement rate of 2.1, meaning that the trend of low births and high overall population decline will continue unabated into future years.

The Atlantic blames these low birthrates on stagnant pay and the high cost of rearing children, both in financial and career terms, for would-be parents. The advice for policymakers is to encourage and incentivize citizens to step up production of the next generation.

Opposition to immigration

Few assessments pay much attention to immigration as a potential avenue of demographic replenishment.

One reason for this is a presumed historic sense of national identity based overwhelmingly on ethnicity. Minorities such as the various Taiwanese indigenous peoples and the Ainu in Japan make up tiny percentages of the overall populations, respectively dominated by Han Chinese and ethnic Japanese.

Traditionally, this homogeneous makeup has stoked popular opposition to creating a more multi-ethnic citizenry. As a result, using immigration to solve population decline problems is considered a non-starter in both countries, especially in light of the ongoing popular backlash against mass migration in multicultural European states.

Moreover, a strong sense that a set of social norms and cultural practices defines national identity make it difficult for those espousing non-mainstream ideologies to be accepted as part of local society. Those attracted to Japan and Taiwan by higher standards of living and greater availability of well-paying jobs can easily be driven away by perceived exclusivity of these sociocultural markers.

Opposition to mass migration also stems from a sense of foreigners taking jobs from “natives,” driving down wages in the process.

However, both Taiwan and Japan have flexibility in their labor markets. As Bloomberg notes, the number of job vacancies in Japan greatly exceeds the number of available workers, especially among the country’s legions of small-and-medium enterprises. The country’s laws restricting firing of regular employees, as well as widely used corporate structures tying wage levels with seniority, ensure locals do not suffer economically with an influx of foreigners into the job market.

The situation is not dissimilar in Taiwan, where hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians already fill labor gaps in both the manufacturing and services sectors, and proposed revisions to the Immigration Act aim to supplement these by allowing migrant workers and international students to remain in Taiwan in mid-skilled roles, of which Taiwan as a shortage of about 120,000.

Cracking the door

Governments in both countries are engaged in the battle to attract talented foreigners. The Independent reports that new Japanese immigration rules have made it easier for highly skilled foreigners to gain permanent residency, with the most coveted talents able to obtain it in a year.

The system is based on points, not unlike those used to “score” foreign residents in more migrant-friendly countries like Australia and Canada. Yet, such a system is unlikely to massively change the outlook of Japanese demographics, as rules are aimed solely at retaining a limited number of talented foreigners while keeping much larger numbers of poor, less skilled prospective migrants out of the country.

A row of stalls is seen selling Vietnamese, Thai and Indonesian food in Taipei, Taiwan.

The same sentiment, to retain highly skilled foreigners while keeping others out, can be felt in Taiwan’s evolving legislation. The aforementioned revisions to current migration laws also focus on attracting so-called highly skilled “foreign special professionals” to key “competent agencies” in high-tech sectors.

Yet the draft bill still does not make permanent residency possible for millions of low-skilled Southeast Asian migrant workers that provide menial labor as factory hands and caretakers of the elderly.

The immigration answer

There is still hope that both countries can create a case for migration by enforcing much stricter requirements for naturalization. If legislators can ensure that only those migrants who are willing and able to demonstrate proper understanding of local social norms – not to mention fluency in official languages – can be eligible for residency, then public backlash against immigration could be mitigated.

This idea is not without precedent, the UK’s citizenship test is a prime example.

If such “malleability” is an ideal trait of the foreign resident, then Japan and Taiwan are well positioned. Japanese government statistics show that of the 2.47 million foreign citizens in Japan as of 2017, those from China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam make up more than 1.5 million, or nearly 61 percent of the total.

Taiwanese government statistics show that those from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam total approximately 0.6 million, also about 60 percent of the total foreign population of 1.1 million. People from these East Asian countries share with one another, in one form or another, Confucian ideologies, historical experiences and facial features.


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Such similarities make them more likely to comprehend and take up features of Japanese or Taiwanese sociocultural identity. Furthermore, especially among their poorer, younger segments, East Asians go to Japan or Taiwan with the hopes of increasing their own standards of living.

Enthusiasm of East Asians for Japan and Taiwan could mean that it is possible for their governments to actively push for further assimilation. Expedited permanent residency or even citizenship could be offered if an East Asian migrant has shown local language fluency, willingness to marry a local spouse and bear children locally, willingness to take up a local name, or other agreed upon criteria.

Of course, proposing such measures would not be without controversy. Some may see targeted assimilation policies as inherently racist. And natives may not be satisfied with government-defined criteria for assimilation. Too strict criteria may also reduce the eligible pool of foreign residents who can conceivably become culturally attuned within their lifetimes, resulting in a policy that fails to achieve the overarching goal of countering population decline.

Either way, incentivizing East Asian residents to naturalize could provide Japan and Taiwan with a modest start in using migration as a tool for reversing population decline. By allowing the general public to become comfortable with the idea that policies and cooperation with private businesses can and will be used to encourage foreigners to engage with Japanese or Taiwanese sociocultural identity, the government can gradually reduce popular opposition to mass migration.

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Editor: TNL Staff