2015 was the first time since 1920 that the population of Japan declined, and it is estimated that it will continue doing so. By 2100, 35% of the population will be over 65 years of age. International commentators, from journalists to researchers, recommend Japan increase immigration. And yet, Prime Minister Abe recently stated that Japan’s demographic crunch was not a problem, but rather an incentive for increased productivity.
In his recent book on acceleration and overheating, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2016) argues that “the credibility of the anthropological story about globalization depends on its ability to show how global processes interact with local lives.” Japan’s precarity, and its unique geopolitical position, provide an important case study for anthropological thinking about mobility’s role in producing futures, livelihoods and politics. It also challenges us to move beyond theories of mobility that assume the epochal inevitability of increased movement.
In absolute terms, few people—less than 2% of the country population—i/emmigrate to and from Japan; many have argued that Japan is actually a net exporter of people. While the desire to travel overseas is dwindling among Japanese youths, tourism from Japan’s East Asian neighbours is booming. But, as is the case with “foreign-worker” policies, many are skeptical about this tourism boom’s long-lasting benefits.
What might an anthropological approach to these problems tell us? Ethnographic studies of mobility in and out of Japan show the way movement acts as a “qualisign,” connecting personal and national futures (Chu 2010). For Chinese people moving to Japan, whether as tourists or migrants, their mobilities produce comparisons between national discourses of modernity and their own notions of the “good life.” Similarly, shifts within the geopolitical and economic relationship between Japan and the Korean peninsula have ensured that many multi-generational Korean residents of Japan (zainichi) are facing difficult personal choices. Moving to Japan can also serve as a source of precarity for unexpected groups. Men who went to teach English in Japan, for example, can often find themselves in uniquely liminal positions.
Mobility is also “good for thinking” about Japanese people whose concern about Japan’s increasing precarity has inspired them to look elsewhere. Inter-Asian movements have increased and produced new patterns of mobility. As Karen Kelsky has pointed out (2001), the concept of “abroad” holds various aspirational qualities for Japanese women, whether enacted or imagined. Japanese men work for the Chinese offices of their home companies. Lower living costs and nostalgia for a simpler life have drawn Japanese retirees to Southeast Asia.
Over the coming months, we will be showing how recent ethnographic work on movements in and out of Japan can reveal new patterns and connections within East Asia.
Editors’s note: This piece introduces the series “In and Out of Japan,” with the next pieces to be published over coming months.
Jamie Coates works on Sino-Japanese mobilities and their effect on young Chinese identities. In particular he is interested in the role migration and media play in young Chinese efforts to re-imagine co-ethnic and regional ideas of commonality. He is currently a visiting fellow at Sophia University.
Raluca Nagy is research associate at the University of Sussex and the Free University of Brussels. Her overarching interests are healthcare and mobilities. It is from this perspective that she has been following, since 2012, the livelihoods of English teachers in Tokyo.