TV & Radio
Let's Tap Japan's Baby `Machines,' Immigrants: William Pesek
By William Pesek
Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Japan has never been known for a thriving feminist movement. The World Economic Forum ranks it 69th out of 75 countries in female empowerment. Tokyo is still awash with women wearing work uniforms that make them look like 1970s flight attendants.
The weakness of women's lib in the world's No. 2 economy may come as a surprise to Hakuo Yanagisawa. Japan's embattled health minister has been front-page news since describing women as ``baby-making machines'' on Jan. 27. You would think millions of Japanese women had suddenly discovered Gloria Steinem.
Even by the standards of Japanese politicians, Yanagisawa went too far. ``I reprimanded him severely,'' Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters after female lawmakers called for Yanagisawa's resignation. Yanagisawa, 71, apologized, further displaying his cluelessness by saying women were ``people whose role it is to give birth.''
What's more, Yanagisawa defined ``baby-making machines'' as women between the ages of 15 and 50. Was he suggesting that teenage girls do more to increase Japan's low birthrate? The man should resign, and now.
The bigger problem is that Yanagisawa is charged with tackling one of Japan's biggest long-term challenges: keeping the population from shrinking. In 2005, the birthrate fell to a record 1.25 babies per woman, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain today's population of 127 million. A shrinking population makes it harder for Japan to fund pension programs and pay back government debt.
Japan needs to act aggressively to encourage families to have more children. Doing so involves making it easier for women to work and raise a family, providing affordable day care and, more generally, reducing sexism in corporate Japan.
Women and Immigrants
Yet Japan really needs a dual approach to boosting long- term growth prospects: more babies and more immigration.
Thanks to a rapidly aging population, a low birthrate and no pro-growth immigration policies to speak of, Japan faces a skilled-labor shortage. Stimulating procreation is an awkward task for governments, and Japanese already live the longest on a world scale. A more immediate cure is attracting more workers from overseas.
That's easier said than done in uniquely homogeneous Japan. A reminder of the nation's aversion to opening the floodgates came last week with the publication of a magazine on crimes committed by foreigners. FamilyMart Co., Japan's third-largest convenience-store chain, pulled ``Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu,'' or ``Secret Foreigner Crime Files,'' from its shelves, citing the publication's ``inappropriate racial expressions.''
It's significant, though, that some leading politicians such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara are speaking more about the need to attract international talent.
First, a couple of caveats. As a regional leader, Ishihara might not seem all that important. Yet when you manage Tokyo and appear on television as frequently as the charismatic 74-year- old, you have some serious sway over popular opinion.
Also, Ishihara is an unabashed nationalist known for xenophobic statements; he's sometimes described as Japan's answer to France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. Feminist groups also weren't amused a few years back when Ishihara said women past childbearing age are ``useless.''
That said, at least part of Ishihara's immigration argument is worth exploring. ``The country should take it upon itself to adopt an immigration policy,'' Ishihara said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Feb. 6. ``This is not a question of procuring a labor supply. We should be letting in more people who are intelligent.''
Ishihara's comments came with a rant about lax Japanese immigration controls that allowed an increasing number of Chinese to enter Japan illegally. ``This is leading to new forms of crime,'' he said. Such comments only feed those who equate ``foreign'' with crime and disorder. In my opinion, this part of Ishihara's immigration stance should be ignored.
Yet his point on importing ``intelligent'' people is about attracting badly needed talent. What Japan's economy lacks most is the kind of rampant entrepreneurship you would expect from such a highly educated labor force. Sure, there's innovation, as evidenced by the high number of patents that Japanese apply for. The ingredient Japan lacks is startup companies that create jobs.
Take the U.S., for example. A Duke University study published last month found that foreign-born entrepreneurs were behind one in four U.S. technology startups during the past decade. If high-cost Japan is going to maintain its standard of living amid the rise of low-cost China and India, it needs far more innovation than it enjoys today. Immigration could help.
``The world is becoming smaller, and information travels,'' Ishihara pointed out. He added that so far, when it comes to using immigration to Japan's advantage, the national government has failed to act. ``People in Japan have lost the creativity necessary to track the currents of history.''
There are other currents Japan needs to track if it's going to be the thriving investment destination that is its potential. In a recent report, Yuwa Hedrick Wong, Singapore-based economic adviser at MasterCard International Inc., focused on the need to increase female participation and bring retired workers back into the labor force.
``Better utilization of women in the labor force itself would improve productivity significantly,'' Wong said. A similar dynamic could come from better utilizing the ranks of Japan's aging, yet highly skilled, retirees.
Immigration must be part of any long-term economic strategy, too. No, Japan shouldn't keep low-wage workers out. Nor should it only welcome holders of doctorates. Yet Japan does need to think urgently about importing talent. Tapping the potential of women and immigrants may pay economic dividends in the years ahead.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: William Pesek in Tokyo at email@example.com
Last Updated: February 11, 2007 10:18 EST