Japan is eating itself. – An analyzis and recommendation for vitalization


Extremely homogeneous society, almost full employment, low criminality, high suicide rate due to depression, fastest aging society and declining population, unique way of doing business, and economic growth of 0%. How to vitalize Japan?

When helping the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) in picking up food, I recalled the following interesting numbers: In 2014, a record 5,000 people applied for refugee status with the Japanese government, but only 11 people were actually granted the status. Out of the 60 Syrian refugees, 3 had been recognized as of June 2015.

Switzerland where I come from is 15 times smaller than Japan in terms of population, but takes in almost the same number of foreign born people as Japan. That is impressive.

At a closer look, out of the compared countries, Japan is the country that has the highest percentage of intentionally killed people (either by a murderer or by suicide, see column % totally killed in table 1). In the 2014 country list of suicides, Japan ranked 17th worldwide with 18.5 suicides per 100,000 people. This is a three times higher rate than for UK.

mathias-sager-japan-foreigners-table-alltable 1 (2014 Annual report JAR, world bank, and Wikipedia)

Reported reasons for the high number of suicides in Japan are depression, fear of unemployment, and social pressure. Seventy-one percent of suicides in Japan were male, and it is the leading cause of death in men aged 20–44. It appears somehow strange for me that unemployment is mentioned as a cause. The unemployment rate in 2014 was 3.6% and according to my knowledge it is still quite usual to have long-term and quasi life-time employments. Therefore I would re-interpret job security rather from the perspective of a lack of career possibilities and control of personal development. As long as one adheres to the collective system and rules in the work place the job might be secure, but only then. This may feel like a golden cage and result in depression, the leading factor for suicide in Japan.

Japan’s economic growth rate in the past 10 years has been averaging in between 0-2 % range, with negative 4 % being the lowest in 2009 after the Lehman shock (according to IMF data). Japan is hyper-aging and its population is declining due to low fertility. While in Europe persons aged over 65 is from 2005 to 2050 increasing from 16% to 28%, these numbers in Japan are 20% to 38%. With this aging population and declining working-age population problem in Japan, economic researchers estimates Japan’s potential growth rate no more than 1%.

Japan has preserved its way of doing business for many years. The culture differences not only made overseas expansion difficult for Japanese companies, but also Japan expansion difficult for foreign companies; one of the main reason why many companies (have to) choose to work with a local partner when going into new markets in order to reduce the investment risk.

All this supports my impression that the threat for Japan’s citizens is not coming from outside but from within. I recommend vitalizing the economy, domestically and globally, by stimulating actively more lively global expansion, immigration, international collaboration, and a global mindset in business and everyday life, supported by local politics characterized by more and more diversity and inclusiveness. There are many positive signs and efforts from many individuals and organizations, but I’m not sure whether such messages are really already socially acceptable. Because only a strong Japan will be able to preserve its unique and beautiful culture, I hope that more and more individuals change their mind (what is a bit more a challenge in a collective (not individualistic) culture), leading to a collective change in mind, resulting in bigger dreams and goals, and happy colorful growth of all.

    • Hi kelleysdiy. First of all thanks for your engagement. I really appreciate it. Regarding the country comparison, this is just one aspect I’ve picked for this post. There are other countries too on top of country rankings, although Switzerland indeed often shows a favorable picture in terms of quality of life etc.. There isn’t an official saying that goes “Swiss dream” as there is an “American dream” though:-)