Japan's population is expected to peak at 127 million a few years from now and then - if the birthrate remains at the same low level - drop below one hundred million in about half a century. This worries economists and others, who say unless Japan embraces millions of immigrants, it will not be able to maintain its standard of living or its status as an economic powerhouse.
According to United Nations estimates, to maintain even minimal economic growth Japan needs about 600,000 new foreign workers every year. But this is a country with little experience with immigrants. Only one out of every 500 people in Japan are foreign born. That compares with about one of every five in such countries as Australia and the United States.
Japan has strict immigration rules, making it difficult to get a work visa or to settle permanently. Surveys show that as much as one-third of the population does not want more foreigners in the country, even as tourists.
The news media in Japan carry sensational reports giving the perception of an exploding crime rate caused by foreigners. Right-wing politicians make xenophobic comments about Chinese, Koreans and blacks.
Some businesses have signs saying "No Chinese" or "Japanese Only."
Professor Zha Dao-jiong of Beijing's Renmin University says this attitude hurts Japan's image in the region. He studies Chinese migrant workers in Japan.
"These stories are beginning to feed back into China and, as you can expect, Chinese journalists also play up these stories," he says. "So the treatment is part of what contributes to the worsening of public perceptions in China about Japan."
Statistics show that foreigners committed fewer crimes last year than what would be expected given their number in Japan. But foreign residents complain that does not get into news stories.
Urban planning expert Yasuyuki Motoyama says Japan has not engaged in a serious discussion about immigration because it has not depended on foreign labor. "Most [debates] are crime-oriented or some other social issues," he says. "The first important thing for Japan to do is that they have to bring up this issue on the table and discuss what are the consequences, what are the benefits and disadvantages of bringing immigrants to Japan."
Although Japan is struggling with a high unemployment rate of around five percent, the aging population and a shift away from rural areas means that there is a shortage of agricultural workers and fishermen. And the country in the near future is expected to run short of nurses to care for the elderly.
By 2010, almost 40 percent of the population will be over age 55. And there are fewer and fewer young people - the average number of children a Japanese woman has is down to 1.3 - not enough to replace the number of people who die each year.
There is some quiet discussion underway in the bureaucracy. Hidenori Sakanaka heads the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau. Mr. Sakanaka acknowledges a growing realization that if Japan does not make the country attractive to foreigners it will be left behind in acquiring talent and securing the population to remain competitive.
Professor Hiroshi Komai, at Japan's Tsukuba University, is an expert on migrants. He doubts Japan can attract foreign workers, even if it wants to, in part because many jobs have been moved to lower-cost areas, such as China.
"We will not have the jobs for the blue-collar workers because all the main industries have already gone," says Mr. Komai. "And for high-talent group, our enticement, our charm in this is so small compared to China or Korea so we will have to endure a decrease of population."
Many Japanese and foreign experts agree that guest workers and immigrants need to be better educated about Japanese society before they get here. Migrant expert Professor Zha, who lived in Japan for six years, says this problem is particularly acute for the Chinese, because they wrongly think China and Japan are quite similar.
"Japan and China are culturally so damn far apart," says Mr.Zha. "They're culturally more distant from each other than Americans and Chinese or Chinese and Europeans, I guess."
Mr. Sakanaka at the Immigration Bureau says hundreds of thousands of foreigners flooding into the country would be dangerous and actually increase xenophobia. Mr. Sakanaka says that even with one hundred million people, Japan will still be over-crowded. He predicts that a small number of specially trained foreigners - such as nurses - will be allowed to enter Japan.
Not everyone agrees. Japan's largest business federation, Nippon Keidanren, recently proposed allowing non-Japanese health professionals in to care for the rising number of elderly. The nation's biggest labor organization also favors allowing in some skilled foreign labor. And the government wants to make it easier for foreigners with university degrees to enter the country.