Japan was one of history’s great experiments in isolationism. Its Tokugawa shogunate, terrified of the destabilising influence of foreign ideas, prevented anyone leaving or entering the country. This all changed in 1853, when US Commander Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay, compelling Japan to open its borders to trade.
Modern manifestations of this insular past remain, most visibly Japan’s traditional aversion to immigration. The country is one of the most homogenous nations on earth, but this might gradually be changing.
One of the most frequent laments I heard during my trip was a shortage of labour – understandable given that the working age population is dropping by almost one million people a year. Japan’s foreign worker population has doubled in the last five years, now sitting at 1.28m. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is quietly liberalising visa laws further, and easing language requirements for workers in sectors suffering the most serious labour shortages. The target is for another 500,000 overseas workers by 2025, but far more may come.
In parallel to the importation of workers is the investment in automation. Japan is one of the most automated nations on earth, with 303 industrial robots per 10,000 employees. Most of the companies I met with were in the process of automating significant parts of their operations.