Zachary Keck

Why Japan Isn’t Back

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Zachary Keck

Why Japan Isn’t Back

Population decline will limit Tokyo’s ability to be a major power in the decades ahead.

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”.