"The increasingly inverted structure of Japan’s population pyramid, with fewer young people than old people, means that it will be very difficult to generate the tax revenues necessary to pay for the healthcare needs of the elderly. "
Over the past few months, I have published two articles in The Diplomat that explore some of the issues related to the population decline Japan has started to experience over the past couple of years. Whether or not this is a problem that needs a solution is open to debate. Population decline has many benefits, but the fact is that population decline in Japan will also present problems—and very significant ones—as both the Japanese government and its people respond to a very different demographic environment.
It is interesting to take a look at some of the consequences of population decline that may lie ahead for Japan, particularly since, while Japan may be at the forefront of this trend, it is only one of many countries that will experience population decline over the coming decades. In East Asia, Korea has a total fertility rate (TFR)—estimated at 1.23 for 2012—that is roughly similar to Japan’s and China’s TFRs, which are estimated at 1.39 and 1.55 for 2012 respectively. All of these are well below the replacement rate of 2.1 that is needed to simply maintain the current population size. This problem is not limited to East Asia; many European countries have very low TFRs and even parts of the developing world are experiencing declining TFRs.
Because Japan is at the forefront of this international trend, it is useful to explore how population decline is already affecting the country, and a particularly good place to look is rural areas, which already are experiencing depopulation often at a striking rate. The reason rural areas are of particular importance is that in addition to low birth rates, they also tend to experience significant outflows of young people who move to urban areas or abroad. As John Knight, an anthropologist at Queen’s University in Belfast has noted, rural depopulation in Japan is partly driven by young people being drawn to the life, education, and employment opportunities of urban areas even as they are eager to escape rural areas, which they perceive as offering little in terms of social activities and employment (this is not necessarily the case, as there are many rural areas in which there are large factories that provide jobs, but it is a common perception among the youth).
In his research, Knight has explored the environmental consequences of rural depopulation. One of these is that as rural areas experience population decline, wildlife (both animal and plant) begins to move back into areas from where it had previously been displaced by human occupation. In many rural areas, particularly in mountain villages, animals such as bears have moved into populated areas where they may pose a risk to residents. Bears also present problems in farming areas and it is not uncommon to find farmers erecting electrified fences to keep them out of their fields, thus generating expenses related to protecting crops that until recently were not necessary. Knight argues that encroachment by wild animals may further deter people from remaining in the rural parts of Japan.
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