Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Japanese alternative

Japan is robotizing not only manufacturing but also the service sector (Wikicommons - Michael Ocampo)

In my last two posts I argued that South Korea has embraced not only ultra-low fertility but also mass immigration. In this, it has more in common with Western Europe and North America than with neighboring China and Japan.

China is out of step with Western immigration policy for understandable reasons: it is only now exhausting its reserves of cheap labor and, furthermore, has problematic relations with the West. But those reasons hardly apply to Japan—a Western ally with fewer and fewer people of working age. Yet that country has been going its own way on immigration, just as it has in other areas, notably automation and robotization.  In the West, robotics research is a low priority, except for military applications. In Japan, it is a high priority and has the stated aim of staving off immigration:

"Japan's push for automation has historically been driven by political and social resistance to large-scale immigration by non-Japanese, rooted in the idea that there would be a deep cultural incompatibility with such immigrants," says Grant Otsuki, a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.

"In contrast, robots are generally seen as compatible with tradition and culture, or at least 'neutral', and therefore more acceptable than immigrants." (Townsend 2019)

Robotic beings have a good image in Japan, as shown by a spate of movies where a shy boy falls in love with a female android: Chobits (2002), Cyborg She (2008), and Q10 (2010). In contrast, we see a darker image in Western movies, such as the Terminator series, Ex Machina (2015), and Blade Runner (1982 and 2017).

Keep in mind that culture is upstream from policy. If you think movies are made only to provide entertainment, you probably also believe that newspapers serve only to cover the news and that advertisements are used only to sell a specific good or service. Culture is an effective way to shape future policies.

South Korea and Japan: different responses to the same demographic crisis

The South Korean response

Although South Korea and Japan face the same demographic crisis, i.e., an aging society and a low birth rate, they have responded in very different ways. South Korea has greatly liberalized its immigration policy, both in law and in enforcement of the law. Since 1997 the country has opened up its labor market to guest workers and has relaxed enforcement to the point that half of all migrants are undocumented (Moon 2010).

Song (undated) sees a link between the beginning of large-scale labor immigration to his country and the IMF bailout of 1997. However, the "Memorandum on the Economic Program," written by the South Korean government in response to the IMF, says nothing specific about immigration. There is only a promise to implement "labor market reform" and take "further steps to improve labor market flexibility" (IMF 1997). Perhaps other promises were made off the record.

To gain support for large-scale immigration, the government began to promote multiculturalism from 2006 onward:

But the South Korean media also began to host fervent discussions of multiculturalism. In 2005-2006, the number of articles on the topic tripled from previous years. The media shift was echoed by a change in policy from the top, initially driven by President Roh Moo-hyun. The campaign then crossed ministerial divisions and party lines, surviving the changeover from the liberal Roh administration of 2003-2008 to the more conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak. Lee's government sought both to persuade the public to embrace immigrants and to promote integration by educating new foreign-born brides in the intricacies of Korean culture. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family simultaneously started a campaign to persuade the public to accept multiculturalism. Immigration commissioners and the presidential committee on aging set multiculturalism as a national priority to combat a maturing society. South Korea was to become a "first-class nation, with foreigners" — a phrase echoed throughout government documents and speeches. (Palmer and Park 2018)

Watson (2010) ascribes this new policy to the neo-liberalism that has dominated both the Right and the Left, particularly since the IMF bailout of 1997:

For the conservative government, South Korean nationalism and democracy is fundamentally tied to the doctrine of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism refers to the flow of economic migrant labour and mobile global capital. This global environment also requires government policies to attract foreign migrants and workers into South Korea's economy and society.

Multiculturalism is a state-led response to these global changes. The policies of multiculturalism define the present and future economic, security and cultural national strength of South Korea. Critics suggest that, in fact, the GNP regards multiculturalism as an instrumental policy of increasing national state power in this global environment. (Watson, 2010)

The GNP is the Grand National Party. It dominates the political right and resembles mainstream Republicanism in the United States:

The Japanese response

Meanwhile, Japan has been much less willing to open its borders, despite being East Asia's primary destination for foreigners. Its illegal immigrant population has actually declined through stronger law enforcement, and legal immigrants have been mostly overseas Japanese from Latin America. Last year, however, its parliament passed a law to bring in foreign workers for jobs in construction, agriculture, the hotel industry, cleaning, and elder care. Initially, 500,000 were slated to come over the next five years, but the total was cut to 345,000 (Denyer 2018; Nikkei 2018; Shigeta 2018).

Those numbers are still much lower than the 2.4 million foreign workers currently in South Korea, a much smaller country in size and population. In addition, Japan's guest workers will be paid the same as Japanese doing the same work (Denyer 2018). This is in stark contrast to South Korea, which has the largest wage gap between local and immigrant labor in the OECD (Hyun-ju 2015).

Japan is still criticized for not opening up enough. One example is this Washington Post article, whose author warns the U.S. against becoming another Japan:

Now, to be clear, Japan is a wondrous nation, with an ancient, complex culture, welcoming people, innovative industry — a great deal to teach the world. But Japan also is a country that admits few immigrants — and, as a result, it is an aging, shrinking nation. By 2030, more than half the country will be over age 50. By 2050 there will be more than three times as many old people (65 and over) as children (14 and under). Already, deaths substantially outnumber births. Its population of 127 million is forecast to shrink by a third over the next half-century. (Hiatt 2018)

Robotization may make life easier for Japan's growing numbers of elderly but will it pay for their pensions? Mind you, the same sort of question could be asked about low-wage immigration to the U.S.

Why is Japan so different?

A key reason seems to be a high degree of cultural autonomy and a correspondingly high degree of cultural isolation. The term "isolation" might seem strange for a country that does so much importing and exporting. Nonetheless, manufactured goods are not the same as beliefs. The latter are distributed not via shipping containers but through shared language and through shared discourse spaces in academia, entertainment, and the media.

Poor knowledge of English

English has become the language of globalism, and knowledge of English correlates worldwide with public acceptance of core globalist beliefs. In Japan, English is not widely used or understood, even among the well-educated:  

Although English is a compulsory subject in junior high and high school in this country, Japanese still have a hard time achieving even daily conversation levels. According to the most recent EF English Proficiency Index, the English level of Japanese is ranked 35th out of 72 countries. The top three are the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, which are all northern European nations. Among Asian countries, Singapore is placed sixth, Malaysia 12th, the Philippines 13th, India 22nd and South Korea 29th. Japan places between Russia and Uruguay. (Tsuboya-Newell 2017)

Sullivan and Schatz (2009) found that attitudes toward learning English correlated negatively with patriotism (defined as positive identification and affective attachment to one's country) and positively with nationalism, internationalism, and pro-U.S. attitudes. Here, "nationalism" is defined as "perceptions of national superiority and support for national dominance"—what Steve Sailer has dubbed "Invade the world, invite the world!" 

Relative isolation of academia

Academia can propagate a new discourse in several ways:

- by inculcating it in young adults

- by acting as a trusted gatekeeper that serves to distinguish between "correct" and "incorrect" discourse.

- by mobilizing scarce intellectual resources for the development and dissemination of "correct" discourse.

New forms of discourse, like globalism, cannot easily penetrate Japanese colleges and universities by means of overseas-trained leaders. Unlike the case in many other Asian countries, educational authorities prefer to select future leaders from within, attaching little importance to foreign experience and credentials for promotion within the system (Yonezawa et al. 2018, p. 235). Foreign-born professors are hired mostly for teaching English language and literature.

Relative isolation of policy makers

This relative isolation is true for Japanese in general, including policy makers. International organizations, like the IMF, have little input into public policy, in large part because Japan's debt is almost wholly Japanese-owned. This economic independence has been a longstanding characteristic of Japan and enjoys support not only from the political left but also from the political right:

In Japan, unlike many of the social democracies resisting capital movements, the most important political opposition came not from organized labor and a political Left anxious to prevent capital flight and to protect the welfare state; rather, it came from nominally "conservative" politicians; many bureaucratic agencies, including the MOF; and protected, cartelized sectors of the economy, including banks, securities houses, and insurance firms. (Pempel 1999, p. 911)

In the West, globalism coopted first the Right and then the Left. That process is still at an early stage in Japan.


I would like to conclude with three points: 

- Japan will be a nice place to visit during the troubled 2020s. The same decade will see South Korea become more and more like the West, especially the United States—in keeping with stated policy goals.

- English is the language not only of globalism but also of anti-globalism. Just as Japan will move toward globalism more slowly than the West, it will also move away more slowly ... when that time comes. As for South Korea, it will enter a period of polarization, perhaps violent polarization.

- Japan shows that the Western model of modernity is not the only one, or even the best. The Western model is a product of specific circumstances, particularly the presence of a large rentier class that feeds on growth while doing little to make growth sustainable. At home and abroad, our rentier class continually pushes for high rates of growth through expansion of the money supply, through mass immigration, and through rapid exploitation of resources that are either non-renewable or slowly renewable. 

Japan's slow-growth model is problematic in other ways, but it promises to be more sustainable in the long run.


Denyer, S. (2018). Japan passes controversial new immigration bill to attract foreign workers. The Washington Post. December 7  

Hiatt, F. (2018). Anti-immigration Republicans have a decision to make about America's future. Washington Post January 2018

Hyun-ju. (2015). Korea's wage gap between local, foreign workers largest in OECD. The Korea Herald, September 9  

IMF (1997). Memorandum on the Economic Program. December 3.  

Moon, S. (2010). Multicultural and Global Citizenship in the Transnational Age: The Case of South Korea. International Journal of Multicultural Education 12: 1-15. 

Nikkei (2018). Abe vows to bring in more foreign workers. Nikkei Asian Review. June.  

Palmer, J., and G.-Y. Park. (2018). South Koreans learn to love the Other. How to manufacture multiculturalism. Foreign Policy. July 16  

Park, Y-B. (2017). South Korea Carefully Tests the Waters on Immigration, With a Focus on Temporary Workers. Migration Policy Institute, March 1  

Pempel, T.J. (1999). Structural Gaiatsu: International Finance and Political Change in Japan. Comparative Political Studies 32: 907-932.

Shigeta, S. (2018). How Japan came around on foreign workers. Nikkei Asian Review, June.

Song, H-J. (undated). Immigration Policy in South Korea & Japan - A Comparative Perspective Theoretical framework. University of Tsukuba. International and Advanced Japanese Studies. PowerPoint presentation

Sullivan, N. and R.T. Schatz (2009). Effects of Japanese national identification on attitudes toward learning English and self-assessed English proficiency. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 33(6): 486-497

Townsend, R. (2019). Japan's big dilemma: robots or immigrants? Asia Media Centre. March 1

Tsuboya- Newell, I. (2017). Why do Japanese have trouble learning English? The Japan Times, October 29 

Watson, I. (2010). Multiculturalism in South Korea: A Critical Assessment. Journal of Contemporary Asia 40: 337-346.

Yonezawa, A., Y. Kitamura, B. Yamamoto, and T. Tokunaga. (2018). Japanese Education in a Global Age. Sociological Reflections and Future Directions. Springer.


Bruce said...

Japan 2% Christian, South Korea 30% Christian.

Santo said...

Poor South Korea... now believing in real manga-esq

Interestingly, seems south koreans have a weird openess to another culture [christianism] OR also, they had a different recent cultural history where christian missionaries were more effective to impose their beliefs. Many years as a japanese protectorate..

Very low fertility is mostly caused by modern capitalistic structures where people is forced to choice between have a big family or better standard living.

Santo said...

"Japan's push for automation has historically been driven by political and social resistance to large-scale immigration by non-Japanese, rooted in the idea that there would be a deep cultural incompatibility with such immigrants,"

Standard Korean is the language used by almost all 50 million citizens of South Korea. In addition to the native language, most people below 40 years of age use English which means over 58% of Koreans speak English frequently. One of the most prominent minority languages in South Korea is Chinese, which is spoken by over 1.2 million residents.

Alex said...

"Just as Japan will move toward globalism more slowly than the West, it will also move away more slowly ... when that time comes."

Do you really think we're going to move away from globalism? I'm losing hope and becoming blackpilled, despite all the resistance we are witnessing in Europe and North America. I ask you because I know you are a very rational and sensible person, not an ideologue prone to self-deception

Peter Frost said...

Bruce and Santo,

Unfortunately, South Korea has become a cultural colony of the West, particularly the U.S. This is made worse by the high degree of social conformity that Koreans expect of themselves.


It's not over until it's over. I understand that a lot of people are unhappy but are terrified of saying or doing anything (fear of job loss, fear of pressure from "friends" and family, fear of actual violence from Antifa etc.) Fine, I "get" that. But there are a lot of simple things people can do and often are not doing.

My mother would complain bitterly about the political bias in the local newspaper (The Toronto Star), yet she remained a loyal subscriber until the day she died. Why? It's the kind of stupid loyalty I see in a lot of WASPs.

Why not try the following?

- Don't subscribe to a newspaper if you dislike its political/ideological content
- Don't subscribe to cable TV. Yes, many companies will bundle cable TV with Internet and phone services, but there are ways to "unbundle"
- Don't go to a church that supports causes you don't believe in. If you're afraid of standing up in church and denouncing those causes, then leave.
- Don't nod your head in agreement when "friends" say things you disagree with. If you don't want to disagree, say nothing. Don't be a passive accomplice.
- Don't vote for mainstream conservatives (unless your local candidate is solid on the issues you support). In Canada, DON'T VOTE FOR ANDREW SCHEER. He's a nice guy, but that's his big problem. He will be a lame-duck prime minister from his first day of office. VOTE FOR MAXIME BERNIER.
- Wherever you live, do your homework and exercise your right to vote.

Bruce said...

Good suggestions by Peter.

Have a nice normal family. Show friends glimpses of your “unorthodox” opinions. Let them see that we’re normies not scary kooks, ex-cons, etc. Have lots of children, invest in them instead of career, hunker down. Let the genetic tortoise beat the memetic hare as I saw one person phrase it.

Sean said...

Japan was the only country that resisted Western colonisation, and was the first non European power to defeat a European one. If history is any guide it will spring more surprises. Eamonn Fingleton's latest piece suggests Japan's Switzerland like price stability demonstrates increasing productivity and shows its self declared Zimbabwe level debt is a lie. He also says Japan has increasing dominance in advanced engineering sectors.

Worker replacement is projected to be by AI algorithm in existing infrastructure. Biology is being understood with the aid of computers because there is too much information for humans to handle; household appliances have computer chips capable of vastly more than they do, the generic chips are cheaper. Things could alter very fast if the algorithms are discovered, and the country with the best infrastructure for them is Japan, which will benefit the most. Technology not undermining the liberal economic model of immigration and outsourcing seems unlikely.

tomR said...

Computers, robots, automation etc. are the best way to popularize solutions made by the smart and geniuses. Made the smartest people create the program, a device and copy it to millions or billions of computing devices.

This is much more efficient than education, popularization among humans etc. as copying of software is instant and has near 100% success rate, manufacturing a robot can take like months, while eductation is a multi year process that frequnently fails.

So a modern civilization looks like this: geniuses invent algorithms and equations, smart put them in code, test and package, repair errors etc. then it is copied to the devices that execute these algorithms. This gives

1) Civilization run completly on things invented by the most talented people
2) Exclusion of dumb fraction from everything related to running cilvization
3) Still lots of jobs left to "just a little smart" - in robot repairs, testing etc.

Anonymous said...

The numbers don't seem to fully support your article. I notice you never actually show them. Looking it up myself in 1990 Japan had 984,455 foreign residents by 2018 it had 2,637,251 an almost 270% increase in 28 years. Almost 6% per annum, that seems pretty fast growth to me.

Peter Frost said...


Japan has a population two and a half times that of South Korea, so foreign residents make up a much smaller share of the Japanese population. In addition, a quarter of Japan's foreign residents are of Korean origin. They have lived in Japan since WWII and have refused Japanese citizenship largely for nationalistic reasons. Most are Japanese-born. South Korea's foreign population is much more recent, essentially since the 1990s.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what Japan's absolute population size matters. The point is it does have a fast growing foreign population which is growing increasingly quickly, about 6-7% per annum. This at a time when the Japanese population in Japan is shrinking, combining these 2 things together will lead to an explosive growth in the foreign population of Japan. At the moment it's "only" about 2% of total population but much higher for younger age groups, about 6% of population in age range 20-24 according to the March 2019 Final estimates (the last I looked up). I don't know the exact breakdown, but given most of these likely congregate in urban areas like Tokyo. The young adult population of these areas is very likely over 10% foreign population already.

As for source, 5 countries so far make up 74% of foreign population China 28.1%, South Korea 17.2%, Vietnam 11.1%, Philippines 10.1% and Brazil 7.5%.

But there is big % growth (double digit) in recent years from Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Spain and even Mexico.

Peter Frost said...

Per capita does matter. If the host society is smaller, the same volume of immigration will have a greater impact. Perhaps I'm quibbling, but you shouldn't be including Koreans in these statistics. Most of them are Japanese-born, and their families came to Japan during WWII.

I agree that Japan's demographic situation is far from rosy. The same can be said for all of East Asia. But it's still better than the situation in South Korea, where the host society is much smaller, where the native TFR is much lower, and where the foreign population is projected to be much larger.

Anonymous said...

Well just depends how "big" is big. The current trend points to there being about 109 million Japanese people in Japan by 2050 with a foreign population of about 13.6 million, about 1/8th or 12.5%ish of the population. Is that big? Given it'll be much more than that of the younger population % wise it seems big to me, but it'll be less than much of Europe, USA etc and maybe less than South Korea too.

Peter Frost said...

If you exclude the Korean community and overseas Japanese from Brazil, Peru, and other places, the proportion will be less than 10%. Yes, that's a big change, but it's not the point of no return.

I hope that Japan will be able to change her course by 2050. By that time, the cargo cult will be dead. The West, and the United States in particular, will not be a model that Japan will want to follow.