Japan's Growing Problems: Too Little, Too Late?
It’s rush hour in Tokyo. Walking in the city’s busiest intersection at Shibuya Crossing, you are suddenly engulfed on all sides by a sea of businessmen and women, students, senior citizens, all shuffling hurriedly on their way to and from work, school, or an endless list of destinations, deadlines, and due dates in this sprawling Asian megacity. Like a perfectly choreographed dance, each person in the crowd knows exactly where to walk, timing their trajectory and speed just right so that not a single person ever runs into another. Standing in the epicenter of this cultural and financial hub, it may seem that the Japanese capital, and by extension, the nation as a whole, is facing an epidemic of overcrowding, as streets become narrower, spaces become more limited, and lives become more compact. Indeed, global trends forecast that within the next century, the world population will inevitably soar to an unprecedented 9.6 billion inhabitants. Of these 9.6 billion, an overwhelming majority of the human population will live in urban areas, and ever-growing numbers are expected to flock from rural and agricultural areas to the megacities. These numbers in Asia are expected to rise at an even faster pace.
Behind the high rises and bustling traffic of its capital city, however, Japan is facing a very serious problem. Despite general tendencies toward overpopulation, which even affect some Japanese cities, the nation as a whole finds itself in a very peculiar state. In 2014 alone, the Japanese population plummeted by a whopping 268,000 people. In fact, the country has been experiencing uninterrupted population decline for four consecutive years since 2010. With these sustained losses, Japan is expected to lose enough people each year to equal the size of a small metropolitan city until 2050. As time goes on, scientists predict even more dismal numbers for the Asian nation. These projections have already been confirmed by census reports conducted over the past decade. A short-term fix is nowhere in sight.
Japan's Projected vs. Actual Birth Rates, 1965-2015
The problems intensifying Japan’s staggering net losses are twofold. On the one hand, decades of decreasing marriage rates and subsequent birth rates have produced a steady drop in the number of in Japanese-born children per year. On the other, the nation’s population has gradually become older on average, a phenomenon that has plagued the nation since the mid-20th century. An older population supplies fewer workers to the job market and requires more public spending to accommodate for them. Combined, these two features are a double-edged sword slowly maiming Japan’s culture and its economy.
Several factors contribute to Japan’s slowing birth rates. The leading cause of declining birth rates is directly related to the equally alarming drop in marriage rates among Japanese young people. One extreme case is identified by the Japanese subculture known as hikikomori. This word is used to characterize a group of young adults who have effectively cut off all ties to the outside world by staying in their rooms, withdrawn, even disconnecting from their parents, with whom they still live. Although this only represents a small fraction of young people in Japan, it does help to characterize an underlying sentiment among Japanese young people, one that sees these young people questioning, and even refusing traditional societal pressures to marry.
As in many Western societies, Japanese women have become increasingly drawn into the work force. In Japan’s rather gender-restrictive society, this creates a pressure to choose one over the other, either work or family—the age old question. While many other developed societies have changed with the times and provided better maternal benefits, Japan remains obstinately old-fashioned in its treatment of women in the workforce. An especially negative factor exacerbating the cleavage between work and family is the societal pressure in Japan for women to essentially give up their careers when they start a family. Increasingly, women choose to pursue more fulfilling professional careers, thereby delaying, some even sacrificing, their chance at raising a family. Gaining in one aspect of a woman’s life most often translates to losing out in the other. What results is delayed marriage, less time devoted to family building, and thus, fewer children. This burgeoning work-oriented culture pushes young people away from the thought of marriage and childbirth; the population gap, accordingly, continues to widen.
The direct consequence for Japan of stagnant marriage rates is equally stagnant birth rates. Typically, analysts propose an average births-per-woman rate—more formally called the replacement rate—needed for a country’s population to at least sustain itself and not suffer a net loss. In Japan, this number is 2.1 However, as illustrated in the graph above, Japan’s actual rates of reproduction have consistently fallen well below this proposed figure. In recent years, the actual birth rate has fallen far below that of the projected rate—Japan’s population is plummeting.
On the other end of the spectrum, more and more of Japan’s working population reaches retirement age each year. Although high life expectancies may serve as a good indicator of a country’s quality of life, Japan’s sizeable retired population will create huge complications and uncertainties in the coming decades. Currently, approximately 25% of Japanese citizens are 65 or older. Experts have predicted that by 2050, that number will rise as well to nearly 40% of the islands’ population. To put that into perspective, of Japan’s 127 million citizens, roughly 31 million are currently in retirement.
Japan's Population Pyramid
According to the population pyramid above, it is evident that the retired age group is now the second largest of all categories. In the long run, as more adults shift from working to retired status, retirees will make up a much larger portion of the population as a whole. The higher proportion of elderly people in the country directly affects Japan’s dependency ratio i.e. the number of people of working age (between 15 and 64) compared to the number of people who fall outside of that range. With fewer working aged people to support the growing number of Japanese retirees, the gap will expectedly continue to widen. Along with the country’s dismal birth-rate forecasts, the compounded effects of decreases in the number of births and increases in the number of retirees intensify Japan’s population crisis. The nation will suffer huge economic consequences if both phenomena are left unaddressed and unchecked.
Two solutions have been proposed to alleviate Japan’s chronic issues. The first, a more immediate countermeasure, is to open up the nation’s borders to more immigrants. Many other Western nations, including the United States and Germany, for example, have found this method to slow, even reverse trends of population decline. Indeed, given the Asian nation’s dire circumstances, replacement immigration would, at least in the short term, provide a much-needed boost to Japan’s dwindling and ailing work force. Historically, the island nation has chosen to uphold strict immigration policies, allowing very few to naturalize and become citizens. Even to this day, Japan has remained closed to the idea of supplementing its economy with the aid of foreign workers, but is left with few alternatives. It is estimated that in order to jumpstart the economy, roughly 200,000 workers would need to enter the country each year. Thus far, no official action has been taken in this regard.
Another, less tangible and long-term endeavor seeks to tackle Japan’s stagnant birth rates on a macro-level. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, in recent years, touted a policy of “Womenomics”, a set of values and initiatives aimed at creating more women-friendly conditions in the work force and changing the dialogue on women, marriage, and gender roles in Japan. These programs tackle maternity benefits, the staunch work-family rift, as well as the traditionally male-dominated job market and work atmosphere. Changes in these policies, in turn, are designed to create more manageable, balanced work lives that encourage women to also pursue fulfilling family lives, or at least make the possibility of having both more realistic. Whether or not the Japanese working-age population decides to utilize these benefits is a different question. The more daunting task lies in changing the culture of ingrained gender inequality.
Despite these drastic and innovative attempts to address its shrinking problem, Japan’s population has already sustained significant and foreboding losses. If such trends continue, the government can surely expect to feel the aftershocks of stunted growth. The nation must adopt major overhauls and reforms to counter such acute attrition. Yet, little has changed that would reverse these alarming predictions. The coming decades will be a test of Japanese ingenuity. If they fail, the country still has a long way to fall.