Asia rising, Asia falling?
July-September 2017
By: Andrew Phelan

The so-called silver tsunami is hitting Japan first and hardest. Despite this it remains incredibly resistant to change. The belief in racial purity and “Japaneseness,” or “nihonjinron,” a buzzword that was doing the rounds in Japan in the 1980s, has been well documented, but so has the hollowing out of its once mighty consumer electronics industry that arguably missed the digital revolution due to its insular “island mentality.” Despite a low birthrate and top-heavy demographics, it appears Japan would rather experiment with robots than allow willing nurses from the Philippines and Indonesia to work and reside in the country. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, Canada and Australia, which have been reinvigorated by the transfusion of hungry and often highly skilled immigrants. Gender inequality in the workplace is also a drag on Japan, South Korea and India realizing their full potential.

The University of Tokyo Law School graduates who make up the upper echelons of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party are unwilling to take on vested interests and disrupt industries such as agriculture and construction because it would be political suicide. It’s hard to imagine Japan plotting a radically different course. It seems to have turned in on itself since the heady days of the 1980s. There are far less Japanese students studying abroad. Two decades ago, more than 40,000 Japanese students studied in the United States, versus less than half that today, Auslin points out. The opposite trend is the case for students from China. Japan may retain its racial homogeneity and is by no means a spent force economically, as the world’s third-largest economy, but it has and will continue to pay a price for its unwillingness to change. This has not gone unnoticed in the region. As Auslin states: “By some estimates, Japan’s population, which stood at 127.3 million in 2013, will drop as much as 30 percent by 2060 to as low as 86 million, which is smaller than Vietnam today.” He later adds: “As many as 40 percent of Japanese will be over 65 in just a few decades. This would be the largest peacetime demographic drop in modern world history.”

Meanwhile, countries such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines face the opposite problem: so many young people that they struggle to educate and employ them, and in the case of India, highly educated women who for cultural reasons don’t end up taking up their place in the work force. This leads me to Auslin’s next three risk areas.

The environmental cost

When I first visited China in 1988, Saturday was a workday. Imagine the impact when, a few years later, Chinese workers were given a whole weekend off. Like everything in China, the sheer scale of the country means that even the slightest reforms can reverberate around the world. In my adult lifetime, I have had a front-row seat on China’s transformation and urbanization, from skinny people on Flying Pigeon bicycles to heftier folk stuck in traffic jams, and everything in between. When the legacy of China’s recently relaxed one-child policy hits home mid-century, its median age will be just under 50 and it will have more elderly than Japan, Europe and the United States combined. Its current fertility rate of around 1.56 is on a par with South Korea, Japan and Singapore.

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