Monday, February 8, 2021

Not getting the concept


In selling mass immigration to the public, Japan’s government is faced with a semantic problem. Many have trouble understanding the concept, i.e., foreigners can come in large numbers, receive citizenship, and be treated as if they really are Japanese. (Wikicommons – Maya-Anaïs Yataghène)



An ideology will spread more easily among people who already understand its concepts, and such understanding is made easier by a common language. Conversely, an ideology will spread less easily across a language boundary. The problem is not simply one of translating the words but also one of reformulating the concepts, which may seem less familiar in another language and culture.


For that reason, globalism has spread unevenly around the world. It has penetrated the thinking of nations that widely use English as a first language, especially their chattering classes. It has less easily penetrated where English is poorly understood. This has been the case in East Asia, especially Japan.


The Japanese exception


That country is linguistically isolated from the English-speaking world to a high degree, despite close economic ties. In 2019, Japan ranked 53rd in English proficiency out of a hundred non-English-speaking countries, down from 49th the year before. Even China had a better ranking (, 2019).


Japan’s linguistic isolation is part of a tendency toward cultural isolation that goes back to the two-century-long period of sakoku ("closed country"), when the government forbade Japanese nationals to go abroad and severely limited trade with other countries. That policy didn't fully end when Japan opened up to the world in the mid-nineteenth century. There has continued to be an unwritten policy of protecting Japanese culture and identity.


This isolationist tendency is now viewed as a problem by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Because of a very low birth rate, the population shrank by about 1.7 million between 2010 and 2018 and is projected to lose another 20 million by 2045 (Davison and Peng 2021). Stopping this demographic decline will require radical changes to the economy, particularly the balance between work and home life. There is also a deeper problem with consumer culture: advertising tends to promote the lifestyle of singles, since they have the most disposable income. Corporate advertising thus projects images of happy carefree singles, and such images influence how ordinary people see themselves.


While some moves have been made to improve work/life balance in Japan, fertility will not immediately return to replacement levels, even with generous incentives. We’re dealing with ingrained attitudes, as well as an uncooperative consumer culture. Policy makers are thus tempted by a seemingly easier solution—mass immigration—and that seems to be where they’re heading:


[…] some scholars and policymakers have called for a vigorous increase in the number of immigrants admitted to the country. [...] Sakanaka (2015), for example, argues that Japan would need to accept 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years (an average of 200,000 per year) to sustain its population and economy. (Davison and Peng 2021)


In 2014, a government commission came out in favor of increased immigration: "With the falling birthrate, in order to raise productivity, we will strategically bring in foreign talent (gaikoku jinzai) as we encourage a national debate, and we will design the development of our interactions with them" (Roberts 2018, 90).


A matter of semantics


In selling mass immigration to the public, the government is faced with a semantic problem. Many have trouble understanding the concept, i.e., foreigners can come in large numbers, receive citizenship, and be treated as if they really are Japanese. This was a finding from in-depth interviews with people from all walks of life:


An unexpected finding of our research was that the notion of immigration as we know it in the West — migration to a foreign country with the intention to settle as a permanent resident or naturalised citizen — was somewhat foreign to many of our interview participants. When asked for their opinions on immigration, many participants assumed the term 'immigrant' (imin) was synonymous with 'temporary foreign worker' (gaikokujin rodosha) and that 'immigration policy' (imin seisaku) was inclusive of temporary worker programmes like the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that bring in up to 1000 nursing and care work interns from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam each year. (Davison and Peng 2021)


This misunderstanding can be seen in the following exchange between the interviewer (Davison) and nurses at a hospital:



There's one thing I don't get. When you say immigration ... if someone likes Japan and wants to live here ... Is that the kind of person you have in mind? Or someone who just wants to come here for a short time to make some money ... Is there a difference between those kind of people? When you say immigrants ... I don't understand the concept.



I mean people who come here and get citizenship, Japanese citizenship.



Get Japanese citizenship? So they're Japanese?


Most of the interviewees were initially neutral or favorable toward immigration. They often changed their minds when told that immigrants are "people who come to Japan with the intention to settle in the country and perhaps naturalise as Japanese citizens" (Davison 2021). This confusion may be due to government discourse on the subject:


For example, 'immigration policy' is frequently presented as 'acceptance of foreign workers policy' (gaikokujin rodosha ukeire seisaku) and, in official messaging, the implication of permanent settlement is often left unstated. (Davison 2021)


To some degree, the confusion may be deliberate. The government may realize that immigration is more acceptable to the public if presented as a temporary worker program, even if it provides a path to permanent residency and citizenship.





Davison, J. and I. Peng. (2021). Views on immigration in Japan: identities, interests, and pragmatic divergence. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. January 8 (2019). Japan's English Proficiency Drops among Non-English-Speaking Countries. December 4,-Culture%20Language%20Dec&text=A%20survey%20has%20revealed%20that,both%20South%20Korea%20and%20China.


Roberts, G.S. (2018). An Immigration Policy by Any Other Name: Semantics of Immigration to Japan. Social Science Japan Journal 21 (1): 89-102.


frost_follower said...

English language admits the concepts of immigration (in-migration) because of its polyglot roots and development; the Celtic Brythonic and Goidelic, Nordic German, Old English, Latin, German German, Norman French etcetera.

In contrast, the Japanese are immigrants also, but see themselves as one people who came to occupy the islands of the ancient Ainu. Dunno what the archeology says, but in Japan's mythos that's the story and they're sticking to it. It's worked pretty well for a long time, even through the de-deification of the Emperor, but the population loss is a hard problem to solve.

Sean said...

"With the falling birthrate, in order to raise productivity, we will strategically bring in foreign talent (gaikoku jinzai"

Productivity in an advanced economy is by means of better organisation and robots, which Japan is cutting edge in. The growth in per-worker output of Japan has not stalled.

Anonymous said...

Well as per previous when you wrote on this subject worth keeping in mind the reality. Japan has had its foreign resident population grow at over 6% per annum (compounding) since 1990. Japan already is well on the way to being a society full of immigrants. You can just look about here

There has been a temporary (probably) blip recently with the closing down of much international travel and this has pushed back to their own countries many immigrants but unless this starts a whole new trend which seems unlikely. Immigrants will make up a growing absolute number whilst the number of Japanese shrinks and so percentage wise they will really start to explode upwards in future.

Peter Frost said...


The concept of "nation of immigrants" is actually quite recent, even in the English-speaking world. In the U.S.A., that cliché didn't become popular until the 1960s. Previously, Americans saw their nation as being founded by pioneer settlers. In the case of the United Kingdom, that cliché has been popular only since the turn of the millennium.


If you read "One Billion Americans" by Matthew Yglesias, he doesn't even both talking about productivity or GNP per capita, it's simply about military and geopolitical power.


There is a nationalist party within Japan's ruling coalition. Are they asleep at the switch?

Anonymous said...

Many of these parties seem more concerned about place seeking and making symbolic and rhetorical gestures. As for the idea that the immigrants will be temporary, that's totally normal. Mass migration to UK; Germany etc etc all started with temporary guest worker programmes. In places like Tokyo it's already the case that about 10% of the 20 something population isn't Japanese.

Morris said...

Is it conceivable for a society with a declining population to transition through an economic bottleneck using guest workers? The assumed bottleneck is the shortfall in pension support of few workers but many retirees and resultant living standards. This is not discussed and understandably so given the current western culture. Was this the plan behind the German guest worker culture in the 20th C?
The viability of a small but wealthy society is not in doubt, many examples. There is likely a critical mass for a society to be top shelf as the Japanese think of themselves but that number is probably far from current population. Could sheer determination meet that bottleneck? That may be the question for discussions like this.

Sean said...

What bottleneck? Japan has a substantial and growing trade surplus (against a background of domestic savings). The debt to GDP is--as Kyle Bass discovered when he foolishly tried to short Japan based on debt and demographics--deceptive because they just buy it back and cancel it). I think the importation of immigrants is not for maintaining productive capacity at all, but rather as a reserve army of workers and is intended for keeping wage costs low, if not actually falling. The Japanese trick with debt requires extremely low inflation. I expect the German importation of a million refugees was prompted by similar motives, Japan and Germany are a couple of subtle mercantilist powers, which the West cannot understand because of economic theories that those who spend the most are the richest.

Morris said...

So you say that immigration policy is a strategy by the establishment for the establishment and that it is succeeding in Japan. My question relates to social psychology (subject of this blog) not economics which I presented only for context.The concern by the population about sufficient support for the retired is a widely held belief regardless how accurate it is economically.
So is it possible to convince the public to assume that risk? Has that ever happened anywhere? History seem to suggest otherwise, land and people annexation.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think the language barrier and even the orthographic barrier make a significant difference. It helps maintain an insular culture and an insular elite and defends against hostile influences.

By contrast, everyone in Western Europe, especially everyone educated and elite, seems to speak advanced English, and perhaps most importantly, takes an intense interest in intellectual and cultural fashions and developments in the US. Though Americanization isn't yet complete. Germans for example still tend to identify "being German" with German race and ethnicity rather than mere citizenship or residence.

It's the worst in my experience in the UK and Ireland, which I've visited. Presumably because there's no linguistic barrier at all. I imagine Canada and Australia are likewise bad as well.

I would also note that it's not just corrosive liberal and left wing ideas from the US that dominate Europe. The online right wing, alt-right culture of the US also dominates right wing culture in Europe and sets the tone for it.

Anonymous said...

well, if covid (or a similar desease, which spares the young and kills the old) becomes endemic, the problem of support for the mass of unproductive elderly population will be solved in the course of the next 10 years - reduction of life expectancy back to the limits 100-150 years ago: 65-70....
and therefore no need for importing young cheap labor force (= the post-modern slave trade)
japan - like all east-asian countries is absolutely overcrowded since the onset of industrialization: 30 millions of inhabitant instead of 100 would make japan an amene country for all japanese again.

Robertus said...

@ Frost_follower,

The English language is Germanic but with loanwords, all of it's grammatical morphemes are Germanic in origin.

Half of Japanese are middle Chinese loanwords, even one set of numerals is but I've never heard anyone refer to it as a hybrid language.

Sean said...

Morris, people currently working are going to retire before that crunch, so they have every incentive to support the retired until they become one themselves. I don't know that the idea it there is going to actually be a problem is belief that is genuinely held at all by Western elites, it seems more of an excuse for them to invest and reap vast profits while facilitating Chinese growth; that rationale being that China cannot overtake the US.

Do they understand what they are doing or not even care? As Eammon Fingleton said if the demographic argument was really believed to be decisive, then it wouldn't just have been Kyle Bass trying to short Japan. But the smart money quite clearly does not take its own demographic case seriously, so they don't have a meaningful belief in those arguments their tame economists spout and the Japanese pretend to agree with. Anyway, Japan is now a side issue; the scary thing is this style of thinking in relation to China, where the US elite are making lots of money on paper as Chinas productive capacity is built up with US investments, is already warping the judgement of decision makers.

Biden a few days ago: "And I came back and said they're going to end their One China -- their one child policy, because they're so xenophobic they won't let anybody else in, and more people are retired than working. How can they sustain economic growth when more people are retired?."

President of the USA believes the most fantastic things about Chinese demographics, but that is clearly how he has been briefed. So the American Deep State act are infected with this expanding population idea already. I think Biden thinks to ensure primacy continues he need only have a massive surge of immigration; the US is going to cease being world's most important country faster than anyone thinks possible.

frost-follower said...

@ Peter and Robertus

It's true English is Germanic, but that is the framework, not necessarily the concepts. For instance Robertus' example above is Germanic only in "The English is but with loan words all of its are in." The remainder of the words are Latin (usually via France) and "language, Germanic, grammatical, morphemes, origin".

Most of the core concepts in the sentence are not Germanic. In English there seems to be little Germanic roots on the concept of foreigners or immigration.

Germanic: settler, incomer, outsider, outcast, house, home, blood, brother, sister, abide, land, field, turf, bailiwick, folk, kith and kin ...

Latin (most via France): immigrant, savage, barbarian, citizen, civilization, intruder, refugee, native, alien, foreigner, stranger, invader, exile, pioneer, visitor, squatter, expel, expatriate, colonist, traveler, pilgrim, fugitive, country, race, nation, people, clan, tribe, family, relative, culture, mother, father, domestic, indigenous, transplant, aboriginal, territory, range, domain, province, realm, ethnicity, genealogy, community, society, species, lineage, place ...

To Peter's post, I think that English contains a huge range of concepts about nations, ethnicity, insiders, and outsiders that other languages may not have.

Peter Frost said...

"I imagine Canada and Australia are likewise bad as well."

Canadian political culture has become highly Americanized, with the exception of Quebec. In all fairness, this was inevitable. When the British Empire collapsed, English Canadians found themselves with no real purpose, and this was especially so for those on the political right. George Parkin Grant (1918 - 1988) was the last conservative intellectual who could be called uniquely Canadian, at least within mainstream culture.

Canadians seem to be overrepresented on the Alt-Right, probably because the mainstream Right has become so intellectually stagnant in Canada.

Sean said...

OT, "The usual trend of death from infectious diseases—malaria, typhoid, diphtheria, H.I.V.—follows a dismal pattern. Lower-income countries are hardest hit, with high-income countries the least affected. But if you look at the pattern of covid-19 deaths reported per capita—deaths, not infections—Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom are among the worst off. The reported death rate in India, which has 1.3 billion people and a rickety, ad-hoc public-health infrastructure, is roughly a tenth of what it is in the United States. In Nigeria, with a population of some two hundred million, the reported death rate is less than a hundredth of the U.S. rate. [...] “The students found a number of peptides”—the building blocks of a protein—“that could possibly induce T-cell cross-reactivity,” McFarland told me. That novel coronavirus wasn’t entirely novel. Even if the T-cell reaction wasn’t strong enough to prevent an infection, he wondered whether it might diminish the severity of the disease.[...] Although the La Jolla researchers saw T cells in pre-pandemic blood samples which reacted to sars-CoV-2, they didn’t find antibodies that did so. This wasn’t so surprising: they were looking only for a certain type of antibody, the “neutralizing” type that binds to a particular area of the spike protein. And, where T cells are guided by the equivalent of a flat snippet of a picture, antibodies typically attend to the full three-dimensional structure of a protein fragment. The antibodies are therefore more discriminating, less likely to fire in error—to be triggered by a criminal cousin.

But researchers at Boston University tried to explore the hypothesis that prior common-cold coronavirus infections might affect the severity of covid-19 by looking at patient outcomes. They identified a group of people who were found to have had any of four relatively harmless coronavirus variants—collectively termed eCoV—between May, 2015, and mid-March, 2020. When the tsunami of covid-19 reached Boston, some of these people began to get infected with sars-CoV-2. The researchers then compared the disease trajectory in eCoV-positive patients with that in a group of eCoV-negative ones. Among patients known to have had eCoV infections, there were lower rates of mechanical ventilation, fewer I.C.U. admissions, and significantly fewer deaths.[...] A chastening recent study by a group of Philadelphia researchers didn’t find that the presence of common-cold coronavirus antibodies correlated with clinical benefits. Cross-reactivity was seen, but not the kind that helped prevent or control infection. Meanwhile, German researchers have identified a surprising group of unrelated pathogens that share protein snippets—targets for antibodies and T cells—with the new coronavirus."

Bruce said...

Peter I thought you might find this interesting. People with type A blood more likely to catch COVID.

Sean said...

"World Obesity Federation issued a report showing that there is a clear link between excess body weight, especially obesity and COVID-19 mortality. Overweight was more predictive of severe COVID-19 illness than any factor with the exception of age. They found that in countries where less than half the adult population was classified as overweight, the risk of death from the coronavirus was about one-tenth the level found in nations where more than half are overweight or obese. […]
In his New Yorker piece puzzling about international disparities, Murkerjee raises the examples of Mexico and India, noting that they are quite close in age distribution, yet India’s death rate is only about one-tenth of Mexico’s. [T]he percentage of India’s adult population categorized as obese is 3.9. In Mexico, it’s 28.9."