Lee Kuan Yew on Japan’s insular attitude and population woes

The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 13, 2013

SINGAPORE – Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s new book launched last Tuesday, One Man’s View Of The World, presents what he thinks about the future of major powers and regions. In these extracts, he speaks about death and dying, a younger generation of Singaporeans who have known only a thriving Singapore, as well as Japan’s ageing society and Europe’s currency woes.

Mr Lee: “The most serious challenge facing Japan is demographic. Its population is rapidly ageing and not replacing itself. All its other problems – a stagnating economy and weak political leadership – pale in comparison.

If Japan does not solve its demographic problem, its future will be very grim.

The numbers alone make for sobering reading. The fertility rate stands at 1.39 children per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. With fewer births, the number of workers supporting each senior person has shrunk from 10 in 1950 to 2.8 in recent years.

This is projected to continue dropping – to two by 2022 and possibly to 1.3 by 2060. By the time it hits 1.3, it may become so unbearable for the young workers that they will choose to leave.

The population, which grew in the 61/2 decades after the war from 72 million to 128 million, has registered declines for the past three years and is currently 127.5 million.

A shrinking economy cannot be far behind. The situation is wholly unsustainable.

For years, Japanese women accepted their culturally assigned role in the family and in society. They were quite happy to stay at home to bear and rear children, to serve their elderly folk and to take charge of household matters.

But as the women travelled and interacted with people from other parts of the world, and as they tasted the freedom of working and being economically independent, attitudes changed dramatically and irreversibly.

Some Japanese women working for Singapore Airlines, for example, married Singaporean air stewards. They saw how women in Singapore lived – separate from their in-laws and without their husbands bossing them around.

Japanese society tried its best to hold back the tide and to keep the women economically reliant on the men for as long as possible – but failed.

In one or two generations, women abandoned the role they played in the old society. They made their own calculations and decided that the former deal was no longer worth their while.

They did not want to be burdened by children. Many have therefore chosen to remain single. Others got married but did not have children.

Unhelpfully, a significant number of Japanese employers have refused to move with the times. Unlike the Swedes, who have made it possible for their women to have babies and careers, many Japanese companies still convert the women who leave to give birth into temporary employees.

For women who are ambitious and on the rise – as well as for those who feel they need the full-time income that corresponds to a career – the decision to have children becomes unnecessarily costly.

Many never find the courage to take the leap, even if they were inclined to have children.

Singapore’s problem with low birth rates is not dissimilar from Japan’s. But there is one key difference: we have shaded our problem with immigrants.

Japan has been remarkably intransigent about accepting foreigners. The idea that the Japanese race must be kept pure is so deeply ingrained that no attempt has been made to publicly discuss alternatives.

A multiracial Japan is simply not imaginable – whether among the Japanese public or its political elite.

I have seen for myself this pride in racial purity on display. During the Japanese Occupation in Singapore, I spent time working in the Cathay Building as an English- language editor.

On Dec 8 each year, there was a ceremony there in which a Japanese soldier wielding a big samurai sword would say: “Ware ware Nihonjin wa Amaterasu no Shison desu (We Japanese are the descendants of the Sun Goddess).”

In other words, we are and you are not.

I doubt they will repeat the line as much these days, but I do not think the basic belief has changed.

One civilian Japanese officer educated and born in America, called George Takemura, was not fully trusted. He worked in the Hodobu (Japanese information or propaganda department) during the Japanese Occupation and dealt with the cable news editors like me. He was gentle in speech and behaviour.

Holding firmly to such a belief has serious implications. It means the most commonsensical solutions to their demographic dilemma may be automatically precluded.

For instance, if I were Japanese, I would seek to attract immigrants from ethnic groups that look Japanese and try my best to integrate them – Chinese, Koreans, perhaps even Vietnamese.

And in fact, such a group already exists within Japan. There are 566,000 ethnic Koreans and 687,000 ethnic Chinese living in the country.

Speaking perfect Japanese, they are fully assimilated to the rest of society in their ways and habits and long to be accepted as full, naturalised Japanese citizens.

Indeed, many were born and bred in Japan. And yet, Japanese society has not accepted them.

To fully understand the extremity of this insular attitude, one has to consider another group that has been rejected: pure-bred ethnic Japanese from Latin America, also known as nikkeijin.

From the 1980s, tens of thousands of them, mainly from Brazil, have moved to Japan under liberal migration policies drawn up in the hope that they were the answer to the nation’s ageing population.

In making the trip halfway across the globe, these nikkeijin were going in the reverse direction of their grandparents or great grandparents, who had emigrated in the 1920s in search of jobs in the labour-intensive coffee plantations of Brazil.

The experiment failed. Having grown up in an entirely different society, the nikkeijin were so culturally alienated from their genetic relatives in Japan that they were treated as foreigners.

Finally, in 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, the government offered unemployed nikkeijin a one-time resettlement fee to return to Brazil.

In another society, one with a different attitude towards foreigners, this experiment may have succeeded. Indeed, the Japanese government must have believed in the possibility of success before they implemented the policy.

Even they had underestimated the level of intolerance.

Foreigners currently make up less than 1.2 per cent of all residents in Japan, compared with 6per cent in Britain, 8 per cent in Germany and 10 per cent in Spain.

Japan is so homogeneous that young Japanese who have spent time overseas, usually because their parents were sent abroad to work as expatriates, have a difficult time adapting when they return, even if they had studied in Japanese schools.

So much in everyday communication is left unspoken, and the other party is expected to make inferences based on body language and guttural noises.

It will take many more years and a very fundamental shift in attitudes for the country to contemplate a demographic solution that is based on attracting immigrants.

But does Japan have the luxury of waiting many more years before confronting this problem? I doubt it.

If they leave it for another 10 to 15 years, they would have gone down the slippery slope, and it may be too late to recover.

Life, to be sure, will remain comfortable enough for middle-class Japanese for many years to come. Unlike the developed countries of the West, Japan has not accumulated enormous foreign debts.

The country is also technologically advanced and the people are well educated. But eventually Japan’s problems will catch up with it. If I were a young Japanese and I could speak English, I would probably choose to emigrate.”

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