- - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The great mystery of the Japanese culture is how it remains unique while borrowing from other cultures. No society has undergone greater changes than Japan since the mid-19th century, when it was forced out of isolation. Many of these changes were wrought by adopting foreign technology and customs, some in the most intimate aspects of Japanese lifestyle. Most Japanese changed their clothes, and Buddhist vegetarians now enjoy a good steak, from Kobe if they can afford it.

Thousands of Japanese immigrated to Korea and Manchuria, Hawaii, Brazil, Peru and to the United States, under severe population pressure in the late 18th century, but few foreigners settled in Japan. A significant Korean minority comprises Japan’s only important immigrant population. Despite a lack of citizenship by birthright, the ethnic Koreans are largely assimilated.

Japan has maintained a stolid rejection of large-scale immigration. Foreigners have difficulty adjusting to the elaborate restraints of social etiquette and the closed nature of society. The Japanese language, with its borrowing of Chinese ideograms and more recently from Western languages, is extremely difficult to learn.

Perhaps Japanese view foreigners who come into their culture with more reserve than other societies. Europeans and Americans are accustomed to an ebb and flow of migrants over the centuries but the Japanese are not.

Now Japan faces a demographic crisis. Its population is projected to fall from 127 million to 87 million by 2060, when 40 percent of the population will be 65 or older. Unless Japan can reverse or limit this decline, narrowing markets, a growing social welfare burden and an enormous public debt will torpedo the prosperous society. Labor shortages have already contributed to the GDP growth rate falling from more than 3 percent in the early 1990s to only one half of 1 percent.

Japan’s continuance as a world leader, with an economy closely allied with that of the United States, has to be an important goal and part of an American world strategy. It’s increasingly likely that China, now entering a period of low growth and likely political difficulties, cannot be more than a reluctant partner — and perhaps an enemy. The United States has encouraged Japanese relations with the Southeast Asians and India since World War II. That could be enhanced if Japan opened the country to Asian immigrants.

More change may be on the way. The Asahi Shimbun, the country’s leading liberal newspaper, reports that 51 percent of its Japanese respondents said in a recent poll that they support accepting foreigners; 34 percent say they oppose expanding immigration. That’s an increase of approval nearly 50 percent higher than measured in a similar poll five years ago.

Further, more than half of the Japanese polled say they think accepting immigrants will solve the anticipated labor shortage in Japan. There’s grim realism in the respondents’ beliefs. Twenty-two percent say they strongly think accepting more immigrants will weaken national security, and 54 percent said they think it probably will.

The United States doesn’t have much to say about this, not officially, but American policymakers must recognize the changing sentiment, and encourage a positive Japanese response.

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