Daniel W. Drezner

Voluntary human extinction in one country

Back in the nineties, the Economist ran a very provocative end-of-year essay on voluntary human extinction, concluding with the notion that, "the tricky question is not whether to extinguish, but when." While I don’t think that this concept has gained much traction in most of the world, I’m beginning to wonder if the government of ...

Back in the nineties, the Economist ran a very provocative end-of-year essay on voluntary human extinction, concluding with the notion that, "the tricky question is not whether to extinguish, but when."

While I don’t think that this concept has gained much traction in most of the world, I’m beginning to wonder if the government of Japan is embracing it on the sly. I’ve blogged before about that country’s stout resistance to immigration. Today the New York Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi has another front-pager on the barriers to entry for even well-trained immigrants. Shorter Times: the situation is unchanged from 18 months ago:

Despite facing an imminent labor shortage as its population ages, Japan has done little to open itself up to immigration. In fact … the government is doing the opposite, actively encouraging both foreign workers and foreign graduates of its universities and professional schools to return home while protecting tiny interest groups.…

In 2009, the number of registered foreigners here fell for the first time since the government started to track annual records almost a half-century ago, shrinking 1.4 percent from a year earlier to 2.19 million people — or just 1.71 percent of Japan’s overall population of 127.5 million.

Experts say increased immigration provides one obvious remedy to Japan’s two decades of lethargic economic growth. But instead of accepting young workers, however — and along with them, fresh ideas — Tokyo seems to have resigned itself to a demographic crisis that threatens to stunt the country’s economic growth, hamper efforts to deal with its chronic budget deficits and bankrupt its social security system.…

Japan’s demographic time clock is ticking: its population will fall by almost a third to 90 million within 50 years, according to government forecasts. By 2055, more than one in three Japanese will be over 65, as the working-age population falls by over a third to 52 million.

Still, when a heavyweight of the defeated Liberal Democratic Party unveiled a plan in 2008 calling for Japan to accept at least 10 million immigrants, opinion polls showed that a majority of Japanese were opposed. A survey of roughly 2,400 voters earlier this year by the daily Asahi Shimbun showed that 65 percent of respondents opposed a more open immigration policy.

If you talk to Japan-boosters about this issue, they’ll usually respond with some equation of older workers + hi-tech robots = healthy Japan. OK, but it turns out that Japan has fewer old people than the government originally thought, and I’m worried that when the robots get too smart, Will Smith will be too old to stop them.

Seriously, this seems to fall into that set of problems, like, say, climate change, where most people recognize that there’s a serious long-term problem but the short-term incentives to do something about it are close to nil.

Am I missing anything?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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