Last August, I wrote an article for The Diplomat that discussed some of the issues Japan is facing in relation to population decline. As I noted, the population has dropped for three years in a row. Recently, the Japanese government announced that the population decrease for 2012 is expected to be 212,000—a new record—while the number of births is expected to have fallen by 18,000 to 1,033,000—also a record low. Projections by the Japanese government indicate that if the current trend continues, the population of Japan will decline from its current 127.5 million to 116.6 million in 2030, and 97 million in 2050. This is truly astonishing and puts Japan at the forefront of uncharted demographic territory; but it is territory that many other industrial countries also are beginning to enter as well.
Predicting the consequences of Japan's demographic shift is difficult. And it is important to remember that these are projections; it seems to me unlikely that this trend will continue for the next century without some sort of intervening political, cultural, or economic factors that generate increased immigration or more robust fertility rates. Indeed, there have been modest—very modest—increases in the number of foreign residents in Japan over the past twenty years, with a little over twice the number today (2,134,151) as compared to 1990 (1,075,317). Many towns have developed international centers where opportunities are developed and supported, creating contexts for interactions between local residents and foreigners such as a monthly English dinner hosted in the town where I have done fieldwork for several years.
Government officials have often explained to me that one of the goals of these initiatives is to create contexts in which Japanese people can interact, and thus become more comfortable with, foreigners. The widespread presence of foreign English teachers supported through the JET program and other English language programs has also meant that, unlike forty for fifty years ago, most younger Japanese have grown up regularly interacting with individuals from other countries. At the same time, there has been some immigration of women from other Asian countries, such as the Philippines, into rural parts of Japan for the purpose of marrying men who otherwise would have had difficulties finding a wife among the native population. These developments may allow for increased openness to immigration in the future, although for the most part, the Japanese government has remained lukewarm, at best, when it comes to allowing any significant increase in the number of permanent residents or immigrants. Naturalized Japanese citizenship remains difficult to obtain.
While predicting the future of these demographic trends is difficult, the causes are at least somewhat decipherable. The proximate cause of population decline in Japan are fairly clear: a low fertility combined with increased life expectancy has led to a population structure that is increasingly weighted towards older members of society. Currently there are significantly fewer people under 30 than there are between the ages of 30 and 60. As the population of middle-aged individuals grows older and dies, there will be far fewer people remaining behind. In other words, the current middle-aged generation of Japanese has failed to replace itself. The question, of course, is why?
Various studies of demographic change in Japan have linked declining fertility to other changing social factors such as increased education, delayed marriage age, more economic opportunities for women, and the expense of raising children in modern, urban societies. All of these have played a role in reducing fertility over the past few decades. In addition, beyond delayed marriage many Japanese have chosen not to marry and, as a result, not have children. According to the 2010 census, 30% of all households in Japan were single, representing the largest category of household composition in the country. A significant portion of these households were widows over the age of 65. At the same time, a not insignificant portion were women and men in both early adulthood and middle-age who have simply chosen to not get married. In a society like Japan where child-birth out of wedlock is stigmatized, the decision not to marry also normally means that one has chosen not to have children.
Indeed, there are many women in Japan today in their forties and fifties who have opted for a career over marriage and child-rearing. In Japan, social pressures make it difficult for women to manage a career while also raising a family. Furthermore, recent trends suggest that both men and women are increasingly uncertain about the value of marriage and having a family. A government survey of people between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2011 showed that over 61% of unmarried men among those surveyed lacked a girlfriend and 49.5% unmarried women had no boyfriend, the latter being a new record. Forty percent of respondents indicated that there was no need to marry and 45% of men showed no interest in "dating the opposite sex." These results, which represented significant increases over the same type of survey conducted in previous years, have raised concerns that the population problem Japan is facing will not change in the foreseeable future.
The consequences of changing attitudes about marriage and gender roles and associated low fertility are considerable. One problem that has arisen is that many single women are living on very low incomes and have joined the ranks of the poor. Recent research has shown that 1 in 3 single women of working age in Japan qualify as poor and that the number of poor women in Japan is likely to increase; by 2030 it is projected that 1 in 5 women in Japan will be single. Many of these women may well be living in some level of poverty.
Another problem Japan faces is that the general low fertility rate means there are not enough younger people paying into the national pension program, and this will cause increasing strain on government coffers as the proportion of elderly (currently about 23% of the population is over 65) continues to grow.
Finally, the decline of the population over the next few decades, and the shortage of young people in particular, will have a significant impact on the Japanese labor force. Questions related to how to maintain economic growth—an issue that has been at the forefront of thinking about the country for the past twenty years, due to a generally sluggish economy—with a decreasing population are both complex and on the minds of policymakers. One obvious solution to this would be for Japan to relax immigration policies and allow for more workers, particularly healthcare workers, to enter the country. As noted above, to date this has not been a particularly palatable solution, but this may well change as younger Japanese, with regular experience and interactions with foreigners, move into positions of power and guide policy.
An alternative to this social-centered solution of increased immigration has been raised in recent years. Rather than relaxing immigration laws, some have proposed increasing investment in robotics as a means of addressing the conflict of a shortfall of labor with the need for workers. This idea has been raised particularly in relation to elder care, where demand for workers has increased rapidly with the promulgation of the longer term care insurance program in 2001 and the continued growth of the elderly population. It may well be that a technological solution to Japan’s population problem will be seen as preferable to other possible solutions.
Obviously, only time will tell. But Japan is faced with an unprecedented population challenge that will have social, economic, and political consequences over the next century—consequences that will not only affect Japan, but also influence Japan’s trading partners as well as its political and military allies.
There is, perhaps, no single variable in the complex web of East Asian politics more uncertain in terms of how it may influence future relations throughout the region than the fate of Japan’s population, because the manner in which that population changes over the next several decades is both difficult to predict and likely to have a profound influence in shaping the regional role Japan is able to play as a political, cultural, and economic power.
Dr. John W. Traphagan is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin.