Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

What the Imperial House Tells Us About Japan’s Demographic Crisis

Aging, shrinking, its top position reserved exclusively for men – Japan’s monarchy is a neat microcosm of society as a whole.

What the Imperial House Tells Us About Japan’s Demographic Crisis
Credit: Depositphotos

Under current conditions, only men of the male line may ascend to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne. The Imperial Household Law of 1947 decrees that female family members lose their royal status upon marriage. Any sons they may have are equally ineligible to become emperor.

With 13 women among the 18 living royals, the present restrictions severely truncate the line of succession. In 2019, former Emperor Akihito (now 87) abdicated, citing fatigue. When his son, Naruhito (61), ascended to the throne, that left the new emperor’s brother, Crown Prince Akishino (55), and nephew, 14-year old Prince Hisahito, as the only two viable heirs in the succession plan.

The other eligible candidate, Prince Hitachi, Emperor Naruhito’s uncle, is 85. The pressure placed on the shoulders of young Prince Hisahito and any future partner to propagate the male-to-male line for another generation is therefore huge.

Similarly, with every royal marriage of a female family member, the monarchy’s pool of human resources diminishes again by one. Responsibility for the often onerous array of royal duties concentrates ever more keenly on a rapidly dwindling group.

In March, the Suga government convened an expert panel of imperial household specialists to discuss ways to ensure the continuity of the monarchy. Polling suggests that the public overwhelmingly supports further integration of women. Yet powerful conservative factions within the ruling LDP continue to stymie any hopes of progressive change.

Why exactly? Many on the right point to tradition and millennia-long efforts to preserve – with 10 notable exceptions – the male-to-male line of succession as reason for the continued exclusion of women. They advocate instead for reintegrating tributary branches of the royal family, exiled during the post-war U.S. occupation, as a means of strengthening the male-to-male line.

Such arguments highlight resounding gender stereotypes that shape perceptions of male/female societal roles in Japan. For example, the political scientist and activist Miura Mari has written of the “strong feeling in society that politics is essentially a male sphere of activity.”

And while the role of emperor is of course largely symbolic, gender stereotypes that elevate men into leadership roles, while encouraging women to adhere to traditional “good wife and wise mother” behavioral norms, also work to restrict notions of who can and should become the nation’s titular figurehead.

Aging, shrinking, its top position reserved exclusively for men: the monarchy offers a neat reflection of Japanese society in microcosm.

The nation’s demographic crisis is well documented. Statistics released in August 2020 show that the over-65 age group now makes up 28.41 percent of the total population, making Japan a “super-aged” nation. The birthrate has fallen to 1.38 births per woman, much lower than the 2.1 births necessary to maintain the current population of 126 million.

If present rates of decline continue unchecked, the overall population is expected to sink below 100 million by 2050. By 2040, the workforce will have shrunk by 20 percent. Industries such as construction and healthcare already suffer major labor shortages, while the nation’s big industries – auto manufacturing and electronics – can now expect just one domestic applicant for every 1.5 of their blue-collar vacancies.

And yet, the same traditionalist mindset preventing female involvement in the imperial succession plan has so far prevented successive administrations from acknowledging the most pragmatic solution to this predicament: namely, an overhaul of immigration policy.

To date, Japan’s immigrant population – 1.75 percent of the total population, compared to 16.1 percent in Germany and 21 percent in Canada – remains, by OECD member standards, exceptionally low. Until recently, there was little to no inclination to increase immigration for anyone other than highly skilled technicians in particular industries.

Then, in April 2019, widening gaps in the domestic workforce prompted the Abe administration to relax immigration controls. The move paved the way to entry for 345,000 “Specific Skills Workers” across 14 sectors, including hospitality and the food services.

Uptake for the five-year initiative has, however, so far proved disappointing. Within the first six months, only 1,621 Specific Skills visas were issued. Researchers found that various adaptability issues, not least the difficulty of learning the Japanese language, had deterred potential applicants.

Another problem was a lack of assistance in navigating often complex institutional frameworks such as education, pensions, and tax. The non-renewable five-year visa also prohibits workers from bringing their families.

When pushing through the changes, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo insisted he was “not pursuing what is commonly considered an immigration policy.” Instead, he was seeking a way of simply “borrowing” overseas workers to temporarily fill gaps in the labor market. Workers would arrive under the proviso that they would not be staying permanently.

Such assurances work to allay fears among voters that an increase in immigration could lead to rising crime and the deterioration of traditional cultural values. However, immigration policies predicated on such short-termism do little to tackle the long-term issue of chronic population decline.

For Professor Gracia Liu-Farrer, an Asian immigration expert, the apparent lack of desire to integrate immigrant workers is a symptom of an exclusionary ethnonationalist perspective that restricts understanding of what it means to be Japanese.

“Japan’s post-war economic reconstruction was largely dependent on its domestic labor force,” Liu-Farrer explained. “With the economic boom, Japan regained national confidence. Its economic success was tied to this self-image. It has never wavered from this.”

Such is the reluctance on the part of policymakers to envisage a multicultural or multiethnic Japan that the nation’s institutions – from its employment and training systems, to labor and education – have “yet to adapt to global labor mobility and general sociocultural diversity.”

Therefore, despite halfhearted attempts to boost the labor force, Japan remains a nation seen as unfriendly to large scale immigration. Rather than working actively to change this reputation, policymakers seek solutions elsewhere.

The reintegration of retirees plugs holes in less-physically strenuous industries. Increased funding in robotics accelerates the pace of automation. However, much like proposals to reattach severed branches of the royal family tree, such plans offer only partial, reactive solutions to a much wider societal issue.

In the monarchy’s case, gender stereotypes place the institution’s future at risk. Integrating women would not only shore up the royal succession plan. It would also send a powerful message of change, working to increase female representation in wider society.

For Japan as a whole, notions of “Japaneseness” prevent policymakers and the general public alike from acknowledging immigration as a practicable solution to rapid population decline. Effective integration of a potentially growing immigrant population would not only secure the nation’s future. It would open a path toward a more adaptive and diverse Japan.