Should Japan Increase Immigration to Arrest Depopulation?

Every time I give a public lecture which features Japan's 21st century demographic structure someone inevitably asks whether immigration could be a 'solution' to Japan's depopulation 'problem'. I put those words in quote marks for emphasis because I don't necessarily think that depopulation is a problem requiring a solution; at least not in the conventional sense of the solution being to arrest decline. Anyway, here's why I think Japan might not increase immigration as a means of stabilising population numbers.

I am a firm advocate of analysis being based on sound evidence rather than instinct. This is particularly when we address potentially contentious issues such as international migration. With this in mind, we should ask how the data on past and current international migration and population change in Japan inform us about the potential for immigration to 'solve' Japan's depopulation 'problem', then ask how many people would be needed, and finally think about the realistic possibility of an expanded immigration policy being successful.

What do the data tell us?

Current data show that net international migration to Japan is declining from a peak of over 100,000 persons per year in 1990-94 (Figure 1). For the three year period 2010-12, net migration turned negative for the first time since 1975-79, with 181,000 Japanese leaving and 23,000 non-Japanese entering Japan. But this masks some annual volatility. In 2011 56,000 non-Japanese left, while in 2012 77,000 entered, most probably as a result of the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster - the high figure for entry in 2012 would likely have included returnees who had left in 2011 due to radiation fears, for example. Significantly, the number of Japanese leaving has been increasing since the 1990s, with more than 300,000 leaving in 2005-09, 25,000 leaving in 2010, 73,000 in 2011, and 82,000 in 2012, more than cancelling out of the gains from non-Japanese entering the country since 2005. Currently, therefore, Japan is a net exporter of people; not a good position to be in if depopulation is viewed as a problem.

Figure 1. Net international migration in Japan. Source: MIC Statistics Bureau (2014).

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Combining migration data with figures for natural population change (births and deaths), the impact of migration on overall population change has been small (Figure 2). In the future, as the natural population decrease accelerates with the widening of the gap between the number of births and deaths, so the relative significance of international migration will decrease unless larger numbers of non-Japanese enter and the number of Japanese leaving the country is reduced substantially (or even reversed).

Figure 2. Population Change in Japan. Source: MIC Statistics Bureau (2014).

Pop change

How many migrants would Japan need?

In order to know how many migrants Japan would need we need to understand the terms of the question. Helpfully, but some time ago now, the UN Population Division produced a report whose title asked: Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? (UNPD, 2001). I have taken the liberty of reproducing the top half of the table for Japan (UNPD, 2001: 55). Scenario III, where the population remains constant at 127 million, would require net inward migration of 17 million people through to 2050, or about 340,000 persons per year starting from 2000. Scenario IV, which is based on a constant working age population, would require net migration of 33.5 million people, or about 660,000 persons per year. Scenarios V and VI are more extreme and unrealistic.

Figure 3. UNPD Scenarios for Migration Effects on Population Change. Source: UNPD (2001).

Given these figures begin in 2000, and we are now in 2015, then the numbers required annually would be greater than the UN figures project, because Japan's net inward migration amounted to just 109,000 persons over the thirteen years of 2000-12. If Japan were to achieve Scenario III on time, then it would need to immigrate at least 459,000 people per year till 2050, and the age-based support ratio would fall to one working person supporting him or herself plus one other. The actual support ratio would be more serious than this, because of the numbers of 15-64 year olds not working, those in full time education and informal care roles, and those not paying their share of contributions.

One issue to note is that the UNPD assumes a slower population fall to 2050 than Japanese government projections. The UNPD anticipates that Japan will have approximately 105 million people in 2050 with no immigration, while the Japanese government projects around 88 million because its assumptions on future fertility are more pessimistic (NIPSSR, 2014). So far the latter's projections have proved to be more accurate. Consequently, my best conservative guesstimate projects that by 2050, if the numbers of Japanese leaving is taken into account and Japanese government projections prove to be accurate, the country would need to immigrate potentially up to 900,000 persons per year starting in 2015 to achieve Scenario III of a constant population with a deteriorating support ratio.

Even if Japan Increases Immigration ...

There are reasons to suggest that immigration would not solve the depopulation problem, even if the required numbers could be found. Here's why.

Depopulation is not geographically uniform, but has different causes and outcomes region by region, indeed community by community. It is a complex process that involves demographic, economic, social, cultural, and political processes that aggregate and correlate recursively out of low fertility and out-migration, ageing and, eventually, a fall in the numbers of people (Matanle et al, 2011). Depopulating areas tend to be economically less attractive for potential in-migrants due to fewer and poorer employment opportunities. Depopulating areas are geographically more peripheral, distant from major transportation nodes or with comparatively inhospitable terrain and climate, and are less likely to be chosen by migrants for settlement.

Critical for considering immigration is the perspective of the sending countries, something which is often overlooked by people from developed countries. Where would 900,000 people per year come from? Presumably China, which itself has a below replacement fertility rate, would not wish to lose millions of people with economic and biological reproductive potential. Moreover, as countries such as China and Indonesia develop their own economic and social systems to something approaching Japanese levels of comfort there will be progressively less desire on the part of entrepreneurial Chinese and Indonesians to move to Japan, when opportunities at home are expanding. There will always be some people wanting to make a move, to have an adventure, but Japan is competing with a lot of countries for high quality human capital, and in the coming decades there will be many more depopulating countries in Asia and Europe. Will Japan be the destination of choice for the best and brightest? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Finally, international migrants tend to originate in low resource consumption countries, or at least countries with lower per capita resource consumption than Japan. Moving large numbers of people from a biocapacity creditor country, such as Indonesia, to Japan, which is a heavy biocapacity debtor, would exacerbate current environmental problems because the migrants would tend to adopt the consumption habits of their new residence. Japan's consumption levels are seven times the level necessary to maintain environmental sustainability (Global Footprint Network, 2014). Simply put, international migration is environmentally destructive and makes a sustainable human presence on Earth more difficult to achieve; and Japan doesn't have a lot of wiggle room on this issue (USEAI, 2013).

Wrap Up

At this point we need to remind ourselves that currently Japan is a net exporter of people. Moving from that position to absorbing around 900,000 people per year from other countries is probably politically impossible for Japanese society in its present state. The very best that immigration could do, if depopulation is considered a problem requiring the solution of more people, is to provide a softer landing than otherwise might be the case. However, we also know that there are considerable societal and environmental problems associated with this course.

In sum, my analysis points to Japan not going down the immigration path. The numbers required for population stability are too large, and it is questionable whether migrants would settle in the regions that need them most. Finally, international migration won't on its own help us to solve the real problem facing Japan and the rest of the world, which is environmental, and might make it worse. Indeed, I question whether depopulation is a 'problem' at all. Rather, I think it might prove to be an opportunity.


Global Footprint Network (2014) World Footprint: Do We Fit on the Planet?Global Footprint Network Website, Accessed: 1 January 2015.

Matanle, P., Rausch, A.S., with the Shrinking Regions Research Group (2011) Japan's Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century: Contemporary Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline, Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

MIC Statistics Bureau (2014) Japan Statistical Yearbook 2015, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau Website, Accessed: 30 December 2014.

NIPSSR (2014) 将来推計人口・世帯数 (Population and Household Statistics Projections), National Institute of Population and Social Security Research Website, Accessed: 30 December 2014.

UNPD (2001) Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? UN Population Division Website, Accessed: 4 January 2015.

USEAI (2013) Japan is the second largest net importer of fossil fuels in the world, United States Energy Information Agency Website, 17 November, Accessed: 4 January 2015.