I am an immigrant and we are all to some extent migrants: Mobility and migration in the 21st century

It's been 18 months since I posted to my blog. A lot has happened. The New Year in 2019 feels like an approproate moment to start posting again. Here's a short comment on migration and mobility in contemplation of a recent research report in the IUSSP Newsletter today.


Reading this research report on 21st century mobility and migration patterns prompts me to ask myself whether what we are seeing in the 21st century is 'new', in the sense that human migration and mixing across the Earth's surface have been a 'thing' for more than 100,000 years* already and the reasons for people to move and mix (and move and mix again) have always been as various as the conditions under which people live, and are therefore hugely complex. Indeed, migration is an important part of what it means to be human; if anything, fixed settlement and even the concept of 'family' are probably the 'new' phenomena, given that agriculture is only 10,000 plus years old.

What is perhaps new - at least given our own rather limited time hoizons - is the preparedness and capability to move often, to third and fourth destinations, to view one's current location and life-purpose as a way-point rather than a destination, to move back and forth frequently, to move between multiple residences in different countries and continents, for families to establish more dispersed spatial relationships, and therefore for individual and familial mobility to involve a greater number of journeys and be more complex in their aggregate.

These patterns, I think, are what conservatives in receiving communities in developed countries around the world are finding it hard to acknowledge, understand and accept. This is perhaps because they tend to view (judge?) established settlement and continuous living as a close family unit within a single community as a normative 'good', and departure from those patterns as perhaps a 'bad'. Hence Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere' speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October 2016.

Over the longer term, the recent increase in the number of migrants is really roughly equivalent to the increase in world population overall, so the proportionate increase isn't large. However, what the authors might point out is that resident European populations have not increased much in recent decades, even declined in some countries. So the increase in migrant numbers, while roughly reflecting overall global population increases, ends up being a significant proportionate increase of incomers for European citizens and governance systems to absorb. Moreover, the authors do emphasise that displaced migrants as a proportion of migrants overall is rising. Tie these to an increasingly individualistic, even libertarian, European society and politics, and resentment or conflict are potential outcomes.

I am an immigrant

My own story is interesting in this respect, I think. I’m a British citizen living in Sheffield for around 20 years and I’m a father in full-time paid employment. On the surface at least, I conform to conservative norms about settlement, community, family and more. However, I’m not just descended from migrants from long ago - I am an immigrant. I was born in Kenya. And I’ve migrated since then; first to the UK, then to Spain, then Japan, then back to the UK. To who knows where next?

When my parents returned to the UK I didn’t. Not because I didn’t go with them, but because I hadn’t lived in the UK in the first place! Britain was a brand new country of residence for me. I didn’t ‘return’. And I didn’t volunteer it, since I was a young child wholly dependent on adults. It would be easy to gloss over the fact that I was at the time effectively a displaced migrant by arguing my parents were British ‘expats’, but I would argue that the difference between my case and those of Syrian or Nicaraguan children migrating to the UK or USA with their parents today is merely one of degree, not of fact.

It is often the case that expats and immigrants are considered different, one intending to return at a later date, the other intending to stay in their destination, raise a family and die. But the story of mobility and migration in the 21st century tells us that these two terms are simplifications, sometimes used careflessly or ignorantly for another set of darker values that are rooted in false notions of original community and blood; which can be understood as at least in part related to race.

For me, what this story - a story that we need reminding is as old as humanity itself - reveals is that we need to acknowledge ourselves as being first and foremost as a part of a single human species, connected with each other and with our ancestors, and living interdependent with other species on Earth together. Our future survival depends on it, and will probably be decided one way or another this century.

*The Out-of-Africa hypothesis puts the beginning of Homo Sapiens’s migration anything from 115,000 to 300,000 years ago. Though recent research shows that we are all, to some extent, descended from archaic humans (Neanderthals & Denisovians etc.) too, who were resident in Europe and Asia at least 500,000 years ago.

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).

Screenshot 2015-01-04 19.57.20.png

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.

To 'Suffer' or 'Enjoy' Depopulation?

A Happy New Year to everyone!

A disused elementary school in Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. One of many schools closed due to reduced numbers of children.

A disused elementary school in Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. One of many schools closed due to reduced numbers of children.

Original growth temperate rain forest, also in Sado.

Original growth temperate rain forest, also in Sado.

A couple of days ago I promised that my next blog post would be about international migration in Japan, but I couldn't resist saying something about this article that popped up unexpectedly in today's Guardian 'Japan suffers lowest number of births on record as population shrinks' (1 January 2015).

What a great example of the perspective that depopulation is a 'problem' that requires a 'solution', with that solution presumably being to stop decline, either by increasing the birth rate to replacement level or drawing in immigrants from other countries. Japan, according to the headline, is 'suffering' a declining birth rate and a widening gap between that and the death rate, resulting in depopulation.

Viewed from a global perspective, isn't over-population usually understood as the more pressing problem? Shouldn't the headline read 'Japan enjoys lowest number of births on record'? Isn't the current environmental footprint of humanity approximately 1.5 Earths (Global Footprint Network, 2014)? Surely fewer people is exactly what is needed right now.

In common with most complex issues, perspective is key here, as is scale of analysis; putting these two together delivers diametrically opposing viewpoints in this case. Seen from the national scale perspective Japan is experiencing a depopulation crisis that threatens serious economic and social consequences; viewed at the global scale, Japan's depopulation might be seen as light at the end of the long dark tunnel of an environmental crisis of existential proportions. Depending on whether one is in Shiga (growing) or Akita (shrinking), the local perspective could deliver either an optimistic or pessimistic assessment. 

If we ignore the global or local perspectives in favour of the national, then the more Japan's demographic circumstances are understood as a negative 'problem', then the more that policy interventions and resources will tend to be directed at attempting to arrest demographic shrinkage by increasing fertility to replacement levels, which is indeed what the Japanese government has been trying to do in recent years. However over the long term this approach is likely to accelerate global environmental change and imperil future generations' sustainability more severely.

Perhaps I am being too much of a contrarian but, if a solution is what is required in these circumstances - and I don't necessarily agree that one is needed - I think the more intelligent, but more difficult, approach should be to celebrate Japan as a pioneer in the science of depopulation by finding out what benefits can be gained and applying them more rigorously in other areas of the world that are experiencing similar demographic trajectories.

And I promise that I will write about international migration very soon.


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

Guardian (2014) Japan suffers lowest number of births on record as population shrinks, Guardian Website, 1 January.

The Depopulation Dividend

The 'Depopulation Dividend' is an expression I invented early in 2013 at the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) international conference in Busan, and which I first used in writing in an online article published by Prospect magazine on 7 October 2013 (Matanle, 2013). I define it as the advantages that can be derived from naturally occurring demographic shrinkage and which promote human and environmental sustainability.

Some Background: The Demographic Dividend

In 2003 David Bloom, David Canning and Jaypee Sevilla published The Demographic Dividend, which quickly became a seminal work in the study of population and economy. Short and accessible, the book argues that it is the age structure of a population - rather than its overall size or rate of expansion - that provides the conditions for rapid and sustained economic growth. Key to this is the transition to low fertility that accompanies improved public health and rising living standards; that demographic and economic change go hand in hand with responsible government to lift a country out of poverty and backwardness.

Bloom, Canning and Sevilla singled out East Asia's so-called 'economic miracle' as the most compelling evidence for the relationship between changes in population structure and the achievement of economic development. As such it is my belief that Japan's realisation of its demographic dividend - in other words, its emergence in the late 20th century as one of the world's richest and most developed societies - was a seminal moment in world history. It not only demonstrated conclusively that successful purposive accelerated economic development was possible for a country without a European heritage, but it has helped other East and Southeast Asian countries to follow, by a mixture of emulation, adaptation, creativity, and hard work. The East Asian model of economic growth, which Japan pioneered, has enabled hundreds of millions of people across Asia to live longer, healthier, more fulfilling, more productive, and richer lives. What could be better than that?

Consequences: Ageing and Depopulation

However, Bloom, Canning and Sevilla cautioned that this opportunity is time limited; that on the other side of the transition to low fertility lay the potential dangers of an ageing society and, later still, depopulation (2003: 38). In the 1950s Japan's Total Fertility Rate (the average number of children born to each woman) dropped rapidly and stabilised through the 1960s and into the 1970s at around the normal population replacement rate for developed countries of approximately 2.1 children. Since 1974, however, its TFR has remained below replacement, falling to 1.3 during 2000-05; one of the lowest rates in the world for the time. Japan has enjoyed a slight fertility bounce back in recent years, registering a rate of 1.43 for 2013. But, with four decades of continuous low fertility behind it, the number of women of child-bearing age has declined dramatically such that the number of children being born continues to drop, and sometime in the five year period between 2005 and 2010 Japan's total population also began to fall.

Figure 1 below shows the Japan's natural population rate of change going into negative territory first in 2005, and then continuously from 2007/8; but this data excludes the effects of international migration, which I will deal with in detail in my next blog post. Suffice it to say for now that international migration is not having a great deal of effect on Japan's overall population trends.

Figure 1. Japan's population vital statistics. Source: MIC Statistics Bureau (2014).

Demographers knew for a long time that Japan would enter a long period of ageing and, if circumstances persisted, of depopulation too. Current government estimates project that Japan may reduce in size from its current 127 million people to nearer 88 million by around 2060, while United Nations projections anticipate a slower fall to around 102 million (NIPSSR, 2014; UNDP, 2014). Of course, the actual outcome is subject to some variation from current projections. Nevertheless Japan is shrinking and ageing, and will continue to do so for some years, even decades, into the future.

Why aren't we celebrating?

The consequences of ageing and depopulation are almost always assumed to be negative. Some fear that the the government will fail to raise enough tax to pay for the care and pensions needed in an ageing society; or that the economy may even begin to shrink and encounter problems of over-capacity; or that Japanese society and culture may be destabilised in an attempt to maintain economic strength by large-scale immigration (Coulmas, 2008; Matsutani, 2006). To my mind any hand-wringing is misplaced. Here's why.

For some decades, even a century or more, over-population was understood as the major demographic problem facing humanity, due to the potential for humans to overwhelm the capacity of Earth's natural resources to sustain our consumption. In 1798 Thomas Malthus warned that the increasing rate of expansion in the world's population would outstrip our ability to produce enough food. The Club of Rome published its seminal work The Limits to Growth in 1974 with an update in 2004 (Meadows, Randers and Meadows, 2004). The underlying logic in these, as well as other, volumes being that fewer people would place less pressure on the natural environment and, combined with reductions in per-capita resource usage, the possibility of achieving long-term human co-existence within a sustainable natural environment would be within sight. If that is the case, then why aren't we celebrating the appearance of depopulation in Japan and elsewhere?

Barring a major and sudden change in fertility, ageing, longevity, and migration patterns, Japan will continue to depopulate over the coming decades, and the rest of East and Southeast Asia will follow suit. Most of Europe is either already shrinking or will do so soon. The demographic dividend is coming to an end. The age structure of Asian and European populations is changing rapidly and there is little that can be done about it. Indeed, do we need to 'do' anything? Perhaps there is an alternative.

The Depopulation Dividend

Populations are always in dynamic flux as individuals in their aggregate respond creatively to their endlessly changing circumstances with new patterns for living. Despite initial expectations that the demographic transition would produce a stable global population this has not occurred; and it was probably a naive expectation anyway. In the developed world we now face the prospect of reducing populations as a generalised condition. There is little that can be done to reverse that trend; so why not celebrate it and find out if we genuinely can realise the potential for depopulation to enhance the environmental sustainability of human life?

This is where the concept of the depopulation dividend comes into its own. Once we begin to think in this way a huge number of questions emerge, whose answers might point towards new directions for human life in the 21st century.

  • Does depopulation reduce human pressures on the natural environment?
  • Is there any evidence to support the expectation of a depopulation dividend?
  • If not, where can we get the evidence that we need?
  • What if the evidence tells us that the depopulation dividend is more difficult to achieve than we had previously anticipated?

The Future

Some say that Japan is facing a major crisis (NHK World, 2014). But every crisis also bring opportunities. I want to seek out some answers to the above questions and I am confident that researching the experience of Japan and East Asia will help us grope towards finding them. As my research unfolds I will document and track my progress on this blog. By doing so I hope to stimulate discussion, collaboration, and progress towards the goal of maximising the depopulation dividend and delivering a more harmonious and sustainable relationship between humanity and the natural environment on which we all depend.

Next instalment: International Migration in Japan.


My thanks to Professor Natalie Jackson, Director of the National Institute for Demographic and Economic Analysis, University of Waikato, New Zealand, and Mr. Roger Martin, Chairman of Population Matters, UK, for their cooperation and encouragement in developing the concept of the Depopulation Dividend.


Bloom, D., Canning, D. and Sevilla, J. (2003) The Demographic Dividend: A New Perspective on the Economic Consequences of Population Change, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Coulmas, F. (2008) Population Decline and Ageing in Japan - The Social Consequences, London and New York: Routledge.

Matanle, P. (2013) Why the 2020 Olympics won't solve Japan's problems, Prospect, Online Edition, 7 October.

Matsutani, A. (2006) Shrinking Population Economics: Lessons from Japan, Tokyo: International House of Japan.

Meadows, D., Randers, J and Meadows, D. (2004) The Limits to Growth: The 30 year Update, London: Routledge.

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

NHK World (2014) Japan's Depopulation Crisis, NHK World, First Broadcast 2 May 2014., Available from Youtube, 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 (2014) World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, United Nations Population Division Website, Accessed: 30 December 2014.