Immigration, Demographic Change, and National Identity

June 16, 2015

This resource includes two documents: one is written by a senior Japanese immigration officer who discusses Japan's immigration policy options, and the other is written by a Harvard professor who questions the influence of Hispanic immigrants on the United States. The goal of this resource is to stimulate critical thinking about how immigration relates to demographic change and shapes national identity.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
V. GEOGRAPHY C. Spatial Organization: Migration to the United States from Europe, Africa and Asia; migration within the United States; refugee movements, and labor migrations.


Immigration is closely related to a country's demographic changes and profoundly shapes a country's identity. In recent decades, the impact of immigration has become significant for "nations of immigrants" such as the United States and traditionally non-immigrant societies such as Japan. As a PDF iconUnited Nations report predicts, with falling fertility rates and population aging, Japan's population will plummet from over 127 million in 2005 to around 105 million in 2050.

The ratio of Japan's working-age population (15-64 years old) to the retried-age population will decline to 1.7 in 2050, down from 4.8 in 1995 and 12.2 in 1950. To sustain the population level in 2005, Japan would need 17 million net immigrants by 2050, when immigrants would comprise 17.7 percent of Japanese population as compared to 1.57 percent around 2005. As a traditionally homogeneous society, Japan faces hard choices of whether and how to transform itself into a multiethnic and multicultural nation.

Conversely, the United States has prided itself as "a nation of immigrants" and immigrants have sustained its population growth and development. At the same time, throughout United States history the flows of immigrants have constantly challenged and redefined "what is America" and "who is an American." With post-1965 immigrants mainly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, there are concerns about "the third world coming to the United States." Reports of the ever-increasing immigrant population (especially Mexicans) and predictions that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority have stirred new white nativism and led to heated public debates on the national identity of the United States.


The following sources show the challenges to national identities brought on by immigration and demographic shifts.

  1. A translated excerpt from a book published in 2005 and written by a senior Japanese immigration officer, who discusses immigration policy options of Japan as it faces a declining and aging population.
    PDF iconThe Future of Japan's Immigration Policy.pdf
    Sakanaka, Hidenori. "The Future of Japan's Immigration Policy: A Battle Diary." Japan Focus. This is an abridged translation by Andrew J. I. Taylor based on the last chapter of Sakanaka Hidenori's Immigration Battle Diary (Nyukan Senki), Kodansha, 2005.
  2. An excerpt from an article in Foreign Policy written in 2004 by Harvard professor Huntington, who questions the influence of the increasing Hispanic immigrant population on the United States.
    PDF iconThe Hispanic Challenge.pdf
    Huntington, Samuel P. "The Hispanic Challenge." Foreign Policy, no. 141 (Mar/Apr2004): 30-45.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the two options that Sakanaka Hidenori suggests to address Japan's declining and aging population? What challenges will Japan face if it takes the "Big Option" and accepts large numbers of immigrants?
  2. According to Huntington, what is the core of the American national identity? What challenges have this core identity faced in recent decades? What is the single most immediate and serious challenge and why? Do you agree or disagree and why?
  3. Read these two sources together and consider the fact that Japan and the United States have distinct histories and cultures. Are the two authors here perceiving immigration and its impact on national identity in similar or different ways? How and why? 

Classroom Activities

  1. In a global studies or world history class students conduct their own research on the topic by studying similar effects of population decline and resistance to migration by European countries.
  2. The struggle with these issues can also be seen through the lens of soccer and the unwillingness of some clubs to reach out to players of different ethnic and racial backgrounds serving as a microcosm of larger society. Suggested background reading: European Football in Black and White: Tackling Racism in Football by Christos Kassimeris.