Commentary: Most Japanese think their country’s best days are behind them

WASHINGTON: In the next two years, Japan will attempt to assert itself on the global stage through hosting the 2019 G20 Summit and the 2020 Summer Olympics.

While the world turns its attention to Japan, amid this atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, most Japanese remain dissatisfied with their country’s economy and worry about prospects for the next generation, despite rising economic confidence, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

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Jobs and wages are only one source of concern, however; mixed views on the state of Japan’s democracy, immigration and security alliances contribute to a broader set of anxieties about the future of the world’s third-largest economy.

READ: Is Japan finally opening up to more foreign workers? A commentary

People walk through a street in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, Japan, September 29, 2016. Picture taken September 29, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

BLEAK ABOUT THE FUTURE

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Public satisfaction with Japan’s economy is at its highest level since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis over a decade ago. 

Today, 44 per cent of Japanese say the national economy is in good shape, up 34 percentage points from 2009. And despite some third quarter contractions – mostly attributed to natural disasters – economists give the Japanese economy a generally positive forecast.

Yet a majority of Japanese (55 per cent) still describe the current economic situation as bad. Moreover, there are doubts about whether everyone is better off: Only about a quarter of Japanese (26 per cent) believe that the financial situation of the average Japanese is better today than it was two decades ago.

This nostalgia — 41 per cent say conditions are worse today — is coupled with pessimism about the future: Only 15 per cent think children in Japan today will be better off financially than their parents. This represents the lowest level of optimism across 25 nations surveyed (tied only with France).

CONCERNS OVER AUTOMATION AND IMMIGRATION

One of the factors many Japanese believe will affect the next generation is automation. About nine in 10 (89 per cent) expect that over the next half-century robots and computers will be doing much of the work currently done by humans, the second-highest level believing this will happen among 10 countries surveyed.

While 74 per cent say the Japanese economy will be more efficient as a result, more than eight in 10 (83 per cent) say inequality will worsen. In particular, about three-quarters of the public (74 per cent) believe ordinary people will have trouble finding jobs in a more automated economy, and a majority (58 per cent) do not believe automation will generate new, better-paying employment.

A pair of robot dinosaurs wearing bellboy hats welcome guests from the front desk at the Henn-na Hotel in Urayasu, suburban Tokyo on Aug 31, 2018. (Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro NOGI)

Regardless of public worries, automation might be one answer to the country’s greying population and shrinking workforce. Increased immigration might also help rebalance this demographic shift.

The nation’s population of roughly 127 million is expected to contract by about 30 per cent by 2065, and the average Japanese woman has fewer than two babies, ensuring that the next generation of native-born Japanese will be smaller than the current generation.

READ: Fewer golden years as fertility drops and life expectancy rises, a commentary

Yet there is still little public enthusiasm for boosting the number of migrants entering the country.

When asked whether Japan should accept more, fewer or about the same number of immigrants into their country, only 23 per cent believe the Japanese government should allow more immigrants to move in. A majority (58 per cent) voices the opinion that immigration numbers should stay about the same as they are now, while 13 per cent think fewer immigrants should be allowed into Japan.

For some Japanese, reluctance to boost immigrant numbers may be tied to security concerns: A third (33 per cent) believe immigration increases the risk of terrorism in Japan, while four in 10 say migrants are more to blame for crime than other groups.

READ: Genuine immigration reform still alien to Japan, a commentary

But, overall, views are positive. Most Japanese (75 per cent) believe immigrants want to assimilate, and a majority (59 per cent) say that immigrants make Japan stronger through their talents and hard work.

Japan has announced plans to ease immigration restrictions and bring in more foreign workers to tackle a serious labour shortage caused by the country’s ageing, shrinking population (Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro NOGI)

Attitudes toward immigrants may be linked to a broader sense that there is an imbalance between in-migration and out-migration. Roughly six in 10 Japanese consider people leaving Japan for jobs in other countries to be a problem.

Regardless, this discussion has been recently forced into the spotlight amid proposals to create new visa categories for unskilled foreign workers, currently under debate in the National Diet.

UNCERTAIN WORLD

Whether it’s people arriving or departing for opportunities abroad, the wider world raises uncertainties for many Japanese. The United States and Japan have been security allies since 1951, and two-thirds of Japan (67 per cent) see the US positively – a sentiment shared across adherents of the major political parties in Japan.

Yet as 21 world leaders gathered for the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) annual summit, a meeting that US President Donald Trump skipped, just three in 10 Japanese express faith in the US leader to do the right in world affairs, the third-lowest confidence in an American president in 13 years in Japan.

Additionally, 71 per cent of the Japanese public believes Washington does not consider their interests when conducting US foreign policy, up 12 percentage points since 2013.

And views of neighbouring China reflect continued simmering hostilities between two nations with a long, complicated history. In 2018, 78 per cent of Japanese have an unfavourable view of China, by far the most negative response across all countries surveyed.

Feelings toward China are strongly negative in Japan regardless of age, income, education level or gender. Nearly nine in 10 Japanese assert the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people. 

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit last month, as ties between the world’s second and third largest economies gradually thaw AFP/JIJI PRESS

In addition, at least three-quarters lack confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping and prefer a future where Washington, not Beijing, plays the role of global leader, even though a majority believe that China today plays an even more important role in the world than 10 years ago.

HEALTH OF JAPAN’S POLITICAL SYSTEM

Uniting the public’s unease about issues both foreign and domestic are questions about the health of Japan’s political system.

While more than six in 10 (62 per cent) agree that freedom of speech is protected and over half (54 per cent) say that the court system treats everyone fairly, a 56 per cent-majority is nonetheless dissatisfied with the way democracy, as a whole, is working in their country – a growing number compared to 47 per cent in 2017.

Just 40 per cent are satisfied. Discontent seems to centre on the quality of governance. A majority (62 per cent) expresses the view that no matter who wins an election, things do not change very much. In addition, roughly half (53 per cent) believe that politicians are corrupt, while only about a third (35 per cent) say elected officials care what ordinary people think.

On both the domestic and foreign fronts, the ability of Japan’s leadership to grapple with a changing world is an open question for many Japanese.

While economic confidence has gradually improved in recent years, the Pew Research Center survey underscores that near-term optimism has yet to counteract more deeply seated concerns about the country’s direction. And those who think the current economic situation is bad, or that people are worse off financially than 20 years ago, also have more pessimistic views about the overall condition of Japan’s democracy.

Japan’s leaders would appear to have their work cut out for them as they attempt not only to lead their nation to a brighter future, but also to convince the public that better days are ahead, not behind, for Japan.

Kat Devlin is a research associate focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Centre. Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Centre.


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