Asia Unhedged has an idea for where all the Syrian refugees can go.

Japan desperately needs foreign workers to cope with its shrinking population. The country needs to create an “integrated” immigration policy to cope with the population decline, the cabinet minister for administrative reform said Thursday, otherwise in the battle for vital foreign workers it will lose out to China, which also has an aging population.

Syrian refugees at border area
Syrian refugees at border area

Forecasts based on current trends expect Japan’s population to fall below 100 million in 2048 and to about 87 million by 2060, when 40 percent of people will be 65 or older, reporter Reuters. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to hold the line at 100 million by 2060, a fifth below current levels.

“Even if you magically increased the birth rate by tomorrow, still it would take these babies 20 years to grow, so we really need to do something about the labor market,” Taro Kono, the Minister for Administrative Reform, told Reuters in an interview. Appointed in October, Kono is also the head of the National Public Safety Commission

With Japan’s birth rate at rock-bottom levels, Abe wants to bring more women and elderly into the workforce to fill gaps, rather than on focus on immigration, which can be a contentious topic in a society where many pride themselves on cultural and ethnic homogeneity.

“People talk about getting more women (and) … more senior people to stay in the labor market. We obviously have to do both, and that still will not be enough,” Kono told Reuters.

Kono said given “psychological barriers” to immigration among the Japanese public, the policy debate would take time.

But Japan can’t wait, it needs to address the issue now or China which also has an ageing, shrinking population, will leave it in a bind.

More to the point: The Syrian refugees can’t wait. Is it just us, or does this seem like an obvious solution to two serious problems. Japan needs more people who can enter the workforce now and the Syrians need a home, a job and need to stop drowning at sea.

The World Bank said in a report this week that East Asia was ageing faster than any other region.

“Are we competitive enough to pull good foreign workers to this country? I have some doubt about it,” said the 52-year-old Kono.

“Think about China. They will soon start getting old and need a lot of care workers and they will start sucking in all the foreign workers, and then it’s going to be fierce competition.”

Kono said that the government was taking some steps to open up to foreign workers in sectors such as construction, nursing and domestic help, but an overall policy was needed.

“We probably need some kind of integrated policy in the future. That’s what I call immigration policy or foreign workers policy – integrated, not just piece by piece,” he said.

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