Diagnosing and Curing Japan: Why Japan is dying, and how to revive it

By Marina Yoshimura



Japanese people are dying, and so is their country. They’re old, they work too hard, and they put off sex and marriage. Japan’s average life expectancy is 83.7 years, the highest in the world, accords ding to the World Health Organization (WHO). The country also provides national healthcare, which includes subsidies. (38.8% of its financial resources come from public funds; 48.7% is insurance; and 11.7% is patient contribution, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.) Indeed, Japanese citizens have the resources to live healthily, and their long lifespans reflect this. Still,  years of overwork, excessive company loyalty, and an aversion to risk-taking are beginning to plague Japanese society. The Japanese government points to the shrinking and aging population as the problem. However, what it fails to acknowledge is that old people are not the problem; old systems are. The shrinking population is not the culprit; Japanese society’s response is. An overhaul of Japanese governance, in areas such as immigration, diversity, labor, and mental health, is necessary to keep the country alive.

Prescription 1: Admit immigrants and refugees.

As G7 member states devise plans to support migrants, the Japanese government remains on the sidelines, contributing financially to refugee camps and aid but rejecting migrants who seek asylum in their own land. President Trump— who is notoriously vocal on issues of immigration— reportedly announced during a G7 summit that he would be willing to send ‘25 million Mexicans’ to Japan. While the President’s argument is undeniably discriminatory and inflammatory, it does shed light on the Japanese government’s lack of initiative in solving the migrant crisis.

Today, Japan keeps its doors closed to most asylum seekers, immigrants, and non-Japanese residents. Outside of the government, the Japanese people are divided over whether to admit refugees into the country. According to the Nikkei, Japan’s largest financial publication, 60% of 18-29 year-olds in Japan voted favorably to a proposal of admitting refugees. In 2015, 64% of the respondents said Japan should accept refugees, but many raised concerns such as language barriers,education and terrorism. One of the respondents said, “I fear a terrorist from an Islamic country would enter [Japan].” Xenophobia is still prevalent in the country, which undermines a constructive discussion of immigration and refugee admission policies among Japanese citizens. Misconceptions fueled by media bias could lead to nationalistic and discriminatory policies against refugee applicants and immigrants.

Nationalism is not the only issue. Demographics– specifically Japan’s aging and shrinking population– have concerned politicians. Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who is part of Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet, believes the country should admit migrants. When Minister Kono worked as a veteran policymaker, he openly criticized the Liberal Democratic Party (his own party, which is also Prime Minister Abe’s,) for its reluctance to admit refugees in Japan and urged the government to admit them if the country wanted to keep its role in the global economy. “We need to talk about immigration policy sooner because it’s a very psychological issue,” Minister Kono argued. “I don’t think we can wait that long because we are losing our aging population fast.” The Foreign Minister’s demand for revision in the country’s immigration policy is also a wake-up call for civic engagement and political action. Admitting refugees is more than just about public sentiment. It also affects Japan’s survival as a country.

The Japanese government has taken steps toward open borders. Whether in the Foreign Ministry or in the Justice Ministry, the government has become more receptive to the migrant crisis and has decided to relax its refugee admission policy. For example, Japan’s Justice Ministry recently announced its decision to reconsider its current stance toward migration issues,as a result of the overwhelming demand of refugee applicants. Adjusting its operations to accommodate the applicants, the Ministry stated that “A time limit has been set to sort out the contents of the cases for first-time applications,” and that “Applicants whose applicability as a refugee is deemed to be high under the Refugee Convention are quickly granted a status of residence permitting work and are given further consideration.” This statement directly affected refugees who are under urgent circumstances, speeding up their application process. This may be the first step for the Japanese government to be more accommodating toward applicants, and perhaps lead to favorable results, such as recognition as an official refugee, or humanitarian status to remain in Japan. Refugee applicants would thus have a support system under the Japanese jurisdiction.

However, this law is only as powerful as the society that enforces it. Changes must come from society’s attitude. Although the sakoku period (1630-1853), Japan’s period of isolation from the world, is long over, an isolationist view has percolated through much of society. In 2017, the Japanese government admitted just 20 out of over 19,628 applicants, according to the Asahi Shimbun, one of the five national newspapers in Japan. (That’s a 0.001% acceptance rate— lower than Yale’s.) In addition, results of admission or rejection can take over nine months on average, and about two years for the appeal process, according to Daisuke Kikuchi and Chisato Tanaka in the Japan Times. Immigrants and refugees have also faced challenges depending on their occupations: those who aim to work in the blue collar face restrictions, while Japanese society welcomes expatriates and “high-skilled” foreigners with open arms. The disparity among foreigners allows some to contribute to Japanese society while leaving the rest to take care of themselves, which could pressure them to resort to illegal activities such as drug-dealing or prostitution. The lack of support for “low-skilled” workers increases the gap between, not the rick and the poor, but between “good foreigners” and “bad foreigners.”

Prescription 2: Add diversity and novelty to Japanese education.

Creativity begins at school, and innovation is possible– and crucial– for Japan’s development in the private sector. Patrick Newell, chair of Singularity University and co-founder of TEDx Tokyo and Tokyo International School, believes that  “Japanese companies have the potential to be more creative,” and that risk-taking may be the silver bullet for innovation within organizations. Chair of Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank and business incubator that provides educational programs to the public, Newell stresses the importance of education in fostering creativity. In his Ted talk, Newell argues that “It’s ridiculous to think that today, that children are still sitting at a desk like this [points to an image of students in rows], using paper, learning things that will have no real significance in their lives.” The problem appears to lie not only in the teaching method but also in the school environment. Actively striving to resist  conformity in the classroom, accepting students from various backgrounds, including international students, could lead to an exchange of different ideas and help foster creativity in the classroom. While Japan’s education system is ranked one of the top in mathematics and science, offering a moral and globally-conscious education in the humanities is also essential to the country’s development. Japan’s Education Ministry  proposed a bill that encouraged Japanese universities to reform their curricula to focus on rikei-– science courses– at the expense of humanities. They are courses that, in U.S. colleges, would lead to a Bachelor of Science degree. However, the humanities, including history and political science, illuminate issues of our past and present, which are vital to students’ emotional intelligence and what Newell calls, “collective intelligence,” the ability to cooperate. (The achievement gap between native students and first generation immigrant students exists; thus, a more robust support system is necessary.)  For Japan to maintain the resources and human capital it has today, it must expand and incorporate ideas from multifaceted perspectives.

Globalization has led to an unprecedented number of foreigners traveling to or demanding residence and citizenship in Japan. Population trends in Japan are unlike those of the past; the shrinking and aging population topped with an influx of migrants and tourists pressure Japan to relinquish its image as a homogenous country and accept diversity. In October of 2017, Japan had 1.28 million foreign workers, trainees and students, according to the Japan Times. In the wake of such an influx, visas for tourists have become more accessible with the Visit Japan project by the Japan Tourism Agency, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have catalyzed a movement to accept foreigners in the country— on a temporary basis. Having discussions and debates regarding permanent status and citizenship of migrants— whose work is vital to the Japanese economy and infrastructure—  would allow foreigners to develop their skills that are necessary to contribute to Japanese society in the long-term. The message: Do not turn immigrants and refugees away; take them in.

Prescription 3: Take mental health seriously.

Those who suffer from mental illness hear the words “Get over it” all too often. An intangible issue is not inconsequential. Suicide is the top cause of death among Japanese people ages 15 to 39, according to the Japan Times, which illuminates the need to understand and address mental health instead of placing it on the back burner. The suicide rate heavily correlates with one’s professional life in Japanese society. According to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 95% of the respondents had taken at least a month off due to mental health issues in 2011. But since then, Reports of hazing and bullying in the workplace have jumped from 6.4% in 2002 to 17.9% in 2011. The data above demonstrate that the workplace can deteriorate a person’s mental and physical health. In addition, students, too, who are bullied tend to lack the support system necessary. Sometimes, teachers are complicit in the bullying by trying to hide cases of bullying from administrators. Victims become isolated and some, in severe cases, refuse to leave the house, and often labeled hikikomori, or “people who suffer from social withdrawal.” While Japan addresses physical health openly, society tends to sweep mental health issues under the rug. Both public and private sectors should create policies that make mental health a safe topic to discuss, and workers, too, should encourage one another to be open about this topic. This would be possible with the initiative by a boss or supervisor, who has a voice compared to one’s “subordinates,” or other employees who are at the bottom of the totem pole in a hierarchical community.

Prescription 4: Focus on productivity, not hours.

In Japan, loyalty trumps productivity in much of the workplace, which pressures employees to stay at their desks long after their hours have passed. Such expectations lead to a toxic work environment and could lead to karoshi— death from overwork. A national case that illuminated this issue is that of Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year old employee at advertising and public relations company Dentsu who committed suicide at a company dormitory on December 25, 2015. At the company, Takahashi was reportedly forced to work 100 hours overtime in a month, and she suffered from depression as a result. She once tweeted, as written in the Japan Times and reported by the Mainichi Shimbun, a national newspaper, ‘“When you’re in the office 20 hours a day, you don’t understand what life you’re living for anymore. (It’s so pathetic) you come to laugh.”’ The costs of overwork far outweigh the benefits. The work-life-balance sits on the backburner as employees struggle to keep face in the office, trying to work long hours but killing themselves in the process. This culture is draining the productivity and creativity of workers. It is a waste of potential and is not sustainable.

Harsh working conditions sap creativity, and energy. It is not so much the time that one loses but the energy, which is detrimental not only to the individual but to the organization for which one works. In “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” in Harvard Business Review’s On Managing Yourself,  Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy argue that “Energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals…” (61).  So unlike time, which is a finite resource, energy can be managed and continuous expanded depending on our lifestyle. A new approach to work is necessary. Today, many Japanese and foreign workers both struggle to thrive in Japan’s work environment that require conformity and social contract. Expert Wenke Lindert addresses the concerns of overwork. As a student at Waseda University, Lindert worked for a Japanese organization that helped students who were trapped in Black baito— part-time jobs that exploited young workers. Student workers are not the only ones to feel stressed in the environment. The workers felt empowered after sharing their work conditions and receiving the help they needed. Lindert argues that “Japan’s working culture can lead to a ‘brain drain,’” exhausting workers and discouraging them from staying in the company or organization for which they work. This is neither beneficial to the worker nor the company. Grass-roots movements provide necessary assistance; however, a national response to such abuse and to its work culture are also integral.

Many workers in Japan sacrifice their health for the sake of the “collective good.” If collective responsibility is to be expected in the workplace, collective health should also be a norm. Workers’ health should be a priority and the company’s greatest asset. Companies should create systems that track employees’ work hours and penalize managers who promote overwork. Although leaving the office first in a hierarchical, high-pressure environment may be inconceivable to those who are accustomed to the system and work culture, it would benefit the workers– and the companies– to work well than to work long.

Overall prescription

The rapid growth of globalization is a wake-up call for the Japanese government and society to change parts of the country’s system. Japan should accept immigrants and refugees not only to address the aging and shrinking population, but also to diversify the country. Addressing mental health would also help prevent suicides and strengthen the Japanese workforce. Japan’s future depends on its people and its systems, and the Japanese people should start making the changes now. After all, prevention is the best cure.