Incredible shrinking Japan

Once again, Japan has made the headlines for a dubious distinction:


Japan population to fall below 100m by 2056: new estimate: Shrinking working-age population to weigh on country's economic growth 

TOKYO -- Japan's population will fall below 100 million in 2056, and the number of births will fall below 500,000 in 2059 if births per woman remain roughly unchanged, according to projections released Wednesday [April 19, 2023] by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

Interestingly, that new estimate extends by three years the most recent projection:


The previous estimate in 2017 predicted Japan's population would fall below 100 million in 2053, three years earlier than the new forecast [2056]. The change was made due to the growing number of foreign nationals entering Japan, which is estimated to increase to 160,000 per year from 70,000 per year, using the average from 2016 to 2019.

This new forecast is far from optimistic, but it does reveal something not widely discussed in Japan: the increased influx of foreign workers, which Japan has heretofore been reluctant to allow. According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan is 97.9 percent ethnic Japanese. The death rate is 40 percent higher than the birthrate, and there are only 0.74 migrants per 1000 population. However, there are now over 3 million foreign residents in Japan, mostly from other Asian countries. Because the Japanese are not replacing themselves, foreign labor has become a necessity.

Also, due to shrinking population and internal migration to urban areas, Japan has over 10 million abandoned properties, mostly single-family homes. While Japanese have no use for them, quite a few Westerners and other foreign nationals are trying to relocate to Japan to purchase and renovate them. Lack of demand makes them incredibly inexpensive. This huge surplus of affordable housing is beginning to draw migrants to Japan.

However, the Japanese are quite proud of their ancient culture. They want Japan to remain Japanese, which is reasonable, thus they are resistant to immigration. They believe that mass immigration into Japan would make their society less Japanese. Here in the West we’re conditioned to view such sentiments as xenophobic. The Japanese don’t seem to care what we think.

But if the Japanese care so much about their nation and culture, why aren’t they reproducing themselves? It basically comes down to priorities, which are simply a question of values. Urbanization, education, perpetually tight money, consumerism and extreme environmentalism are often cited as culprits.

But one thing is for sure. After World War II, Japan was thoroughly Westernized. The new constitution, “democracy,” and having it all took hold with a vengeance. The material improvements that resulted are undeniable. Individual achievement was richly rewarded. Like other Westerners, the Japanese became highly individualistic. Whereas, traditionally, having children was prosperity, children became a major stumbling block to prosperity.

Eventually, however, the Japanese leadership has come to realize that too much focus on the individual is detrimental to the larger community. With a shrinking workforce and fertility stuck at close to 40% below replacement level, Japan is at a crossroads. The government needs to strike a balance between individual and community needs. 

And so, in a January address to the Japanese Diet, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the establishment of the Child and Family Agency:


I intend to materialize measures to address the declining birthrate that are at a totally different level from those we have undertaken until now, in which all people participate, regardless of age or gender.
Then, under the Child and Family Agency to be established in April of this year, we will systematically compile the policies for children and child-rearing needed in today’s society and, by the time our Basic Policies are compiled in June, present a general framework designed to facilitate a future doubling of the budget for children and child-rearing.

Kishida’s six-month timeline might seem fast in today’s managerial world, but it seems slow given the urgency reflected in the PM’s comments:


Now or never when it comes to policies regarding births and child-rearing-it is an issue that simply cannot wait any longer… The number of births dropped below 800,000 last year… Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society… Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.

Because of the rapidly declining birthrate, the number of births in Japan is expected to have dropped below 800,000 last year, and the country now finds itself on the brink of being unable to maintain social functions. Working on policies for children and child-rearing is an urgent matter that cannot be delayed. [Emphasis added]

Kishida went on to say, “We must create a children-first economy and society and reverse the trend seen in our birthrate.”

Amen! Imagine such an utterance from an American president.

Japan is the Global North’s canary in the coal mine for population decline, which has been accelerating for more than 12 years. From 2021 to 2022, the population declined by over 550,000. This decline has been discussed at length here at MercatorNet. As Japan resident David Kolf wrote in February:


A recent government survey found that one in four never-married Japanese in their 30s do not want to marry, because of the loss of freedom it would entail, or the increased burdens such as financial responsibilities and housework.

A good question to ask, though, is whether there is any voice telling them and their compatriots that marriage and families are more of a joy than a burden, or that freedom can be exercised and happiness found in being a good spouse or parent.

In January, Michael Cook discussed how to reverse population decline:


[T]hey could open the doors to high-fertility migrants. The Amish would prosper in Japan’s fertile – and abandoned – countryside. More plausibly, Filipinos are nearby and would fit in better.  

[T]hey can bribe Japanese women to have more children. At the moment this appears to be Mr Kishida’s plan. Reversing the demographic trend will be the “top priority” for his administration. He plans to splash money around to “create a children-first economy and society”. “Policies on children and child care are the most effective investment for the future,” he told the Diet. He will provide an additional 80,000 yen (US$592) annually to couples who have a child.

And yours truly wrote in May 2022:


In a recent tweet, he [Elon Musk] said: “At the risk of stating the obvious, unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist. This would be a great loss for the world.”

The Japanese are a clever, hard-working people. Losing them to a birth rate spiraling down to zero would indeed be a calamity. Let’s hope Prime Minister Kishida’s last-chance plan works. Otherwise, the bell might toll for us all.  


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