Why Japan Isn’t Back
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why Japan Isn’t Back


Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s economic policies and more nationalistic rhetoric have led to much talk about a Japanese resurgence. As Abe himself put it confidently in a speech last year: “So ladies and gentlemen, Japan is back. Keep counting on my country.”

But whatever the merits of Abe’s policies—and regardless of whether he is able to pull the Japanese economy out of its two-decade long slump—the truth is that Tokyo does not have the potential to be a dominant force in Asia in the 21st century.

This was reaffirmed earlier this week when Japan’s Health Ministry released its annual population figures. According to the Health Ministry, Japan’s population declined by 244,000 people in 2013. Although this was the seventh consecutive year in which Tokyo saw its population dwindle, this was the largest annual decrease to date.

Nor does the future offer reason for optimism. Japan’s population, which is currently at 126.3 million, is expected to decline to 116 million in 2030. By 2050, that number will shrink to just 97 million. As it shrinks, the population will also grow older; currently Japanese 65 years of age and older make up 25 percent of the population, a figure expected to jump to 40 percent by 2060.

This is all directly related to Japan’s ability to be a major force in the region in the Asia Century. For most of human history, the major sources of societies’ power were the size of its population and the size and quality of its territory. The last two centuries or so have been the exception to this rule as the industrial revolution created such disparities in labor productivity as to make land and population far less relevant to national power. Thus, Britain could once legitimately claim to be the world’s greatest power despite having a fraction of the world’s population and territory.

The transitory impact of the industrial revolution quickly became obvious, however. Notably, as the U.S., Russia, and a unified Germany modernized, they surpassed England in terms of national power. It was no accident, for instance, that the U.S. and Russia emerged as the superpowers of the second half of the 20th century. Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw this in the early 19th century.

Still, Japan continued to be the dominant Asian power throughout the 20th century, despite having a fraction of the population* of China in 1950 and a landmass that is mostly inhabitable and bereft of natural resources. This is unlikely to continue, however. Perhaps the dominant characteristic of the current age of globalization is its democratic nature. That is, the world’s most cutting-edge technologies are increasingly available to normal citizens in all nations. Moreover, the level of governance in most every country—China most especially—has greatly improved from the 19th and 20th centuries.

As a result of these two trends—the growing diffusion of technology and better governance—population in particularly, and territory to a lesser degree, are likely to re-emerge as the key currencies of potential power. And neither of these bodes well for Japan, regardless of how successful Abe is in implementing his agenda.

*Corrected from the original “half”.

April 10, 2014 at 19:52

If you have ever been to Japan, you will recongnize that many of these posters have no clue about what really goes on in Japan. Japan is facing a population crisis, and it cannot sustain its huge economy with a workforce of people who are 70 years old and spent. Not to mention hoken and ninkin (pension and health insurance) that are mandatory payments in Japan. The money just wont be there, its a HUGE expense. Japan has a system similiar to England, but its a huge tax burden. Not to mention Japans industry that was built in the 80s. Immigration was tried in the 80s, but once those factores moved to China, those immigrants were spent and sent home. Japan has some severe issues with anything from outside. Clueless posters think its anti immigrant and praise its policies because of their hellhole in europe ect. Japan isnt particuarly racist; they hate anything foriegn. The are introverted to the point of being sick, thus so many suicides. Japan will fail unless something is done, but its unlikely. Its not a country with a Judeo Christian roots like norway, sweden etc so that comparision wont work as well. India is expected to take Japans place in 2030. Japan will fall further and further behind. The koreans and chinese have copied japans model, and are beating them at their own game. Innovation is not something Japanese are known for, and are just coming to the scene but are falling behind.

January 12, 2014 at 09:49

Seoul and Tokyo, a tale of two cities, one dynamic and growing, another stuck in reverse and decaying. A million plus immigrants in one and zero immigration in another. One city being the future, the other a fading past.

Cory Fitz
January 12, 2014 at 05:38

This article raises a good point that is often ignored by the media, but I would like to see a more balanced analysis.

What about the fact that China’s population will also start to experience decline soon, and that Japan, as a developed country, might have an easier time managing that than developing China?

Really it comes down to China. When you ask the question: who will be the major power in Asia (assuming there will be one dominant power), size of the economy will be the primary factor. Larger economies can buy larger militaries and more influence. China, with its massive population, is destined to have a larger economy – UNLESS it is restrained by some force. Previously, that was Maoism.

Absent bad communist economics, the forces of demography are asserting themselves. But George Friedman of STRATFOR (admittedly a little nutty sometimes), posits an alternative scenario: China will be unable to manage its future problems (debt, aging population, rural/urban divide, I would add ecological) and therefore politics will come to trump economics. Either the state will disintegrate and China will no longer be a unified country, or it will reassert control over the economy, and China will opt for unity over economic success, as it did for much of its history.

Implausible as it seems right now, I think this is the only scenario where Japan is able to be sole dominant force in Asia.

January 6, 2014 at 20:12

Unlike some short term social democrats commentators here, Japan played the best card.

When UK and western Europe will be a living hell on earth with permanent sectarian conflicts, boosted by religious zeal, Japan will a calm democracy who prefered to preserve herself on the long run than losing everything with the stupid economico-utilitarist perspective that would have turned the western world in an authoritarian and orwellian multiculti heaven.

Considering the commodities scarcity during the 21 century, reducing population is actually the best thing a country can expect.

January 6, 2014 at 13:49

This might sound stupid but, can’t Japan give benefits to couples who give birth to children? I mean, state-sponsored maternity (and paternity?) leaves that have more incentives and benefits than the current system.

January 6, 2014 at 07:43

Japan does not produce enough food to feed itself at present. A decrease in its population will make the country more sustainable over the long term. It is also about quality of life which will be better with a reduction in the population. This is one of many silly articles written by economists which believe you can have infinite exponential growth in a finite system. If the author would like to see what an ever increasing population does for a country he could move to India and chat to the 40% of children who are malnourished and tell them how much better it will be in the future when their country is the worlds most populous hellhole.

January 5, 2014 at 02:08

When Fukushima truly blows up there wouldn’t be a Japan and its people will be the first in modern history without a nation. If and when there is another major earthquake, Japan is totally done for.

January 8, 2014 at 04:29

You are right. But there’s a little detail it seems you don’t know (or dont want to know)… If Fukushima-Daichii reactors finally colapse, it is estimated that not only Japan will dissapear, but almost the whole Northern Hemisphere. The current leak is very limited, however you can see the extensive and ”silent” impact it’s causing to the US West Coast. If the ”worst scenario” becomes true, it is very probable the contamination will go around the world (in this case, the N. Hemisphere). Indeed, if i were you, i would pray… hoping for a positive end in the Fukushima crisis. In my case, i live in the Southern Hemisphere… so i’m not very concerned about it.

January 4, 2014 at 12:57

I certainly don’t see how economic recovery can be sustainable in the long term without a big change in Japan’s inmigration policy.

Dave Haliday
January 4, 2014 at 11:36

May I add the following comment,
Japan can never be in East Asia what Germany is to the EU.
Simply because, of the sea of distrust and arrogance diplayed by their politicians.
Prime reason why they, Abe included are visiting the Yasukuni shrine, is because, it is their grandfathers who were enshrined there, war criminals or otherwise!
The current ruling clique are direct descendants from the likes of General Tojo who took Japan on the path to war and slaughter of their neighbours.
Japan will never be the Germany of East Asia till their political system purges their ruling clique of these descendants, who has colored their political system and come clean with their history.

January 4, 2014 at 16:43

I just want to add that it’s not a matter of bad feelings or bad people or anything. It’s that these ultranationalists have been brainwashed and rule by ideology rather than practicality. They believe that the Japanese are the master race and 30 years of a bubbling economy is their proof. So they cannot conceive of a reason why Japan should not succeed and rule.

Cristian Anti-CCP
January 7, 2014 at 03:52

Pfff. Totalitarian China-fanboys narration:
“Japan is not Germany. Japan will not be Germany. Japan haven’t a German democracy”. BLA BLA BLA BLAAAHHH.
Japan will Not be Germany for this VERY simple reason: Japan is an ISLAND NATION while Germany is a continental nation in the middle of Europe. You can´t deny the geographic and strategic importance of Germany in the context of EU. Germany lies between the biggest European powers: Russia, France, Italy and UK. So, Germany will always be IMPORTANT in the European integration. Meanwhile, Asia can do it without Japan, and Japan CAN DO IT without Asia. Look at UK. Even when UK have troubles with EU, London look to USA & Canada. Look at Japan, if Tokyo have troubles with China & Korea, Tokyo could look to American continent, Middle East Russia and Africa. Don’t need to bother with Beijing and Seoul. That’s the advantage of being an INSULAR nation. ;D

January 4, 2014 at 07:21

Depopulation is not only Japan’s problem, but countries like China and South Korea, and many parts of Europe and white/black population of North America is ongoing. The recent report from UN predicts in the worst case scenario, China’s population will be around 500 million by 2100 as the current policies and environmental destruction continues, but China is not yet the elder friendly society and need to quickly adjust and focus onto the domestic growth instead of expansion. By 2100 UN says, India will have whooping 1.7 billion people, and 580 millions in Nigeria, although while I don’t know how they will find jobs, food and other resources to rapidly growing South Asia and Africa. Their GDP may surpass Japan and China, but income per capita will stay low for a long time. The Earth will be mess and I’m glad I won’t be living till then.

UN predicts USA will continue to grow around 480 million in 2100, almost same population with China, although I assume North America will be a part of Latin America culturally. Europe will stay similar in the population, but due to the current immigration policies and the geographical reasons, it will be Islamic than Christian by then. While I’m not against immigration, I prefer cultural heritage over economic growth, and I believe that the Japanese government is doing ok jobs on that.

Larry S
January 4, 2014 at 06:23

There is a simple solutions to Japan’s decreasing population. Immigration.

Japan has seen a decline of 200K in population this year. In the US for example, each year it allows 1 million LEGAL residents each year. This is 5 times the loss that Japan is experiencing, and that isn’t including illegal immigrants which skews that number even further.

Now, the cultural acceptance of immigration will be difficult. But loosening immigration laws, particularly from South East Asia, seems like an easy fix to declining population.

The second issue is that MIT expect that most low to mid-skill jobs will be displaced by technology in the very near future.

Primarily per person productivity will outgrow population needs due to robotics and increased automation over the next few decades. That productivity will outstrip job supply:


An overly large population actually may be detrimental.

Not a chance
January 7, 2014 at 08:38

Asking Japanese to take in SE Asian to pollute their racial purity in order to fill their population predicament, or a desperate plea from the illegal Filipino immigrants in Japan to let them stay reflects a total ignorance of Japanese.

This in turn brings out the issue on commenting with self-righteous but fraught with ignorance on the Diplomat,, it is similar to the phenomenon that there are too many troubling souls babbling anti-China rhetoric without knowing China.

January 4, 2014 at 03:58

Japan had “half the population as China” in 1950? Hopefully you don’t really believe this was true? Japan’s rugged, mountainous geography is mostly inhabitable? I think you mean “uninhabitable”.

This is another one of those articles where the author loses interest in his/her own piece, and fails to proofread his own work. And we know from experience that there are no copy editors at The Diplomat.

But I agree with you, Zack. I also lost interest. Even now, I haven’t read the last paragraph. And probably won’t.

Cesar Polvorosa Jr.
January 4, 2014 at 03:28

A simple but encompassing lens of analysis is the factors of production approach used in basic economics- land (natural resources, area), labor (quantity and quality), capital (technology, man made assets) + entrepreneurship (including management). A country with the best possible combination of these is the #1 economy. Thus, Singapore, Hong Kong are highly prosperous but what constrains them is the small size of the population and land. (with economic and geopolitical ramifications). Many Americans in the 1980s felt that Japan will displace the U.S. as the biggest economy but a more sober analysis will indicate that this is highly unlikely- given population difference size. If US population is bigger than Japan’s by 2.5x that means that the latter country’s per capita income should rise by 2.5X to catch up with the former in sheer size of the economy. Demographics is a long term growth constraint to Japan.

Oro Invictus
January 4, 2014 at 02:25

Rather than pen another bit on optimal human populations, here’s a piece from Quartz (in the Atlantic) on this very subject (as it relates to the various civilizations/nation-states of China lack of global preeminence throughout much of history, despite their massive populations):


Granted, he focuses more on geopolitical matters rather than the ecological factors concerning population size (as I would prefer, though I suppose the historical context of much of the article does not lend itself to this), but it’s still an interesting read.

January 6, 2014 at 08:55

You won’t find a lot of nations in world history whose global dominance was inevitable. There’s always a lot of chances to fail.

A Chinese
January 7, 2014 at 02:20

This article is about Japan, but for those full of jealousy, resentment and fear of China’s achievement cannot miss a chance to show their narrow minded beggar-thy-neighbour mentality and wish China bad. The Westerners have been saying nays about China thirty years, but China is growing and becoming more prospered meanwhile the West keeps on declining, it makes one wonder whether such wicked mindset has something to do with their culture.

Yeah, the West said China’s law was no law, China’s invention was no invention, now even China’s global pre-eminence is no global pre-eminence; the West is even quoting Eugenics to support their Orientalism by blaming China’ massive population for what the West called China’s lack of global pre-eminence.

The old folks said hard time shows true character, it is hard time for the West, their true character and culture surely isn’t pretty, their treasured Western benevolence values such as democracy, love, etc. only exist while they were exploiting others with atrocity, otherwise back to their caste culture nature.

Oro Invictus
January 7, 2014 at 04:54

@ A Chinese

Well, thank you for that display of insecurity; a few points though:

1) The premise of the article is that Japan’s declining population equates to declining influence, something which it contrasts with the PRC; it argues that, as “disruptions” to the population-power relationship by industrialization are rendered nugatory by globalization, this relationship will reassert itself. The problem is that history does not conform to this; the various entities which existed in and around China well before industrialization had massive populations, but they were almost always fragile, insecure entities (likely because of such large populations and the constraints conferred by such).

2) You might actually want to learn what the terms you parrot from the PRC’s propaganda apparatus means. For example, citing that the population of the PRC, due to its massive size, is susceptible to negative density-dependent effects (something most organisms are, including human beings), is not eugenics; at no point do I suggest genetic differentials, in fact, I suggest the exact opposite. If your argument is that the PRC is not susceptible to such things despite its population, it is you who claiming genetic superiority of the PRC population, thus you who is practicing a sort of eugenics (albeit, xenophobia/racism would be more accurate, as eugenics implies some understanding of genetics you clearly do not posses).

3) If you have ever read any of my comments, you’d know I don’t associate myself with any quasi-national-cultural entity like “the West”. Hell, if you’d even read the comment I made here, you’d see at no point I indicate anything suggesting “Western” superiority. Your tirade about the “declining West” being spiteful about the “Rising PRC” is not only utterly non-applicable, but smacks far more of projection than anything else.

On that note, I would actually like to paraphrase elements of your comment, as it fits you to a T:

My comment was about the societal and ecological constraints governing human populations but for those full of xenophobia, resentment, and fear of reality, these individuals cannot miss a chance to yawp on in a futile attempt to defend their most fragile egos.

January 4, 2014 at 01:31

Mr. Keck finally has made some sense of his articles for a long time.
Japan, unlike UK, restraints very much in immigration and has been trying to cling on the notion of ethnic purity. Therefore, Japan will be in decline gradually for as far as I can see, say in the next 50 years. In addition, it is carefully looked over the shoulder by the 50+k American occupiers, and therefore will not be able to rise militarily as high as Japanese like to be in the old days or even as a genuine sovereign nation. They will be struggling economically and with their global identity.

Reno J. Tibke
January 4, 2014 at 00:51

Okay but, what if half of the entire premise here is monkeywrenched?

“Japanese Economics: The Sun Never Set, the ‘Lost Decades’ are a Myth, and Everything is Fine?” – http://j.mp/1cqFTkm

And doesn’t Japan’s post-war rise sorta negate the premise of population-based economic prowess in modern times?

Also, Mr. Keck, you gotta factor in technology, yo. You mention it a bit, but your comparisons are all temporally muddled – what we can do with our technology now is a new frontier. And it’s reasonably arguable that Japan’s economy has been one of ideas for half a century – which is exactly where the global economy is headed.

Lastly, Japan’s is not the world’s only aging society, it’s just the first and most rapid. One could also argue that Japan taking the first stab at the frontier will be an immense asset, and what is learned and developed will be sold to other…

Okay, I’ll stop. It’s too complicated, man. Just know this: robots. It was stereos and semiconductors for decades, and those will stick around, but what’s going to keep Japan afloat and growing is the robotics market.

What a mess. BUT STILL!

January 4, 2014 at 10:24

There are a lot of things robotics and automation can’t solve. For example, robots don’t pay taxes. And taxes, for good or ill, are what pay for the functioning of the government.

Japan’s problems are not terminal, but neither are they so easily solved. In the long run I do not think Japan will ever be “back”. It won’t go back to its heyday of the 1980′s nor will it go back to being the trivial backwater it was before it industrialized in the 19th Century, I think Japan is transitioning to another state and will likely become a permanent albeit minor great power like France or Italy in the decades to come.

And lest anyone think I meant that as slander or belittlement, I actually admire France. I meant it as a positive comparison.

January 5, 2014 at 12:31

You are an idiot if you think only PEOPLE pay taxes lol.

You can tax the robots by simply taxing the robot industry or owners lol.

That’s what we pretty much do with Tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

January 4, 2014 at 12:00

Denial. Denial. Denial. Wake up and smell the coffee. Japan and US are going down like the Titanic. Just look at their annual deficits and accumulated national debts.

January 4, 2014 at 15:19

Wow… on one side some folks think I’m some sort of communist Chinese propaganda agent and now apparently some think I’m an apologist/denier for the US and Japan.

The truth is somewhere in between.

I am not saying that Japan and US are not declining (pardon my double negative), I simply dispute the notion that their decline will be so terminally disastrous.

Cory Fitz
January 12, 2014 at 05:24

The argument against technology (as was mentioned in the article) is that it has become more and more portable. Japan can make robots that compensate for its declining workforce, and then China can copy them to make up for its own declining workforce (one child policy). Only China can do it more cheaply because it didn’t have to do the initial investment. I’m not saying your argument is invalid, that’s just the counterpoint.

January 4, 2014 at 00:16

“The last two centuries or so have been the exception to this rule as the industrial revolution created such disparities in labor productivity as to make land and population far less relevant to national power.”

Not so sure about that. All the top colonial empires and great powers had the largest populations as well in 1900.


January 4, 2014 at 12:37

They have a high population precisely because of the industrial revolution allowing them to support a larger population, and not the other way around.

January 4, 2014 at 16:13

Most of the states with bigger populations in 19th and first half of 20th century were in europe, except for China and India.

Mousey maus
January 3, 2014 at 22:59

Holmes is wrong but fascinating. Keck is accurate but never so fury-inducing.

LDP, the puppet of Washington, is barely hanging in there.

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