Mutsuko Murakami, TOKYO
In three years, Japan will experience a critical turning point. With fewer babies born each year, the population is expected to peak at 127.7 million in 2006, and fall to 100 million by 2050, according to government predictions.
The population decline will erode Japan's vigorous consumption and reduce its workforce, leading to a loss of economic power. Japan's national identity and its presence in the world are also at risk.
What can the nation do to reverse this trend and alter its fate? It has been a critical national challenge for years. The government has introduced a raft of measures to encourage young couples to have more children. These range from offering better day care and support for fertility treatment, to tax exemptions and cash rewards for families having two or more children. Some companies have opened creches at the office or launched new child-care leave policies to try to keep female workers who become mothers.
Meanwhile, Japan's powerful corporate league, the Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), has a drastic solution. It proposes accepting more foreign workers - an answer that conservative leaders have long ignored.
Japan's most influential business lobby last month recommended that the government create a system for 'an orderly acceptance' of more foreign workers to address the projected loss of 6.1 million employees by 2025. Such a system would be an answer to the steady rise in the number of illegal stayers. (The Immigration Office has pledged to halve the number, which currently stands at about 250,000, in five years).
The federation is calling for a law which allows in foreign workers and a new government agency to regulate the influx and offer service and support. It wants a special cabinet-level taskforce to be set up, with a minister appointed to be responsible for the relevant policies. Under the plan, a work permit similar to America's Green Card system would ensure professional and skilled foreign workers could settle in Japan.
Last November, the federation made a similar proposal in an interim report, focusing on skilled professionals, including doctors and hi-tech researchers. In the final proposal, it pointed to the increasing need for qualified workers in the nursing and medical services sectors, saying that the government should relax regulations in these areas.
If all these proposals are implemented, which seems likely, the Japan of tomorrow will be a quite different place from today. More important, an open-door policy will certainly help Japanese better understand what a diverse world we live in.