Japan: the land of the setting sun

Elon Musk is at it again.

In a recent tweet, he 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."

What triggered Elon’s tweet? The latest population data from the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. From 2020 to 2021, Japan’s population declined by 644,000, a 0.5 percent decline in one year. Japan peaked at 128,057,000 people in 2010 and has declined every year since, down to 125,502,000 in 2021. That’s a 2 percent overall decline in 11 years, accelerating annually. Projections say there’ll be just 107 million Japanese by 2040.

Prior to World War II the Japanese Empire was the lord of Asia. After destruction and defeat they quickly rebounded with American aid and unfettered access to global markets. Japan once again became an industrial powerhouse.

Back in the 1980s Japan’s economy rivalled that of the US. “The Japanese” were buying up everything in sight. Award-winning economist Pat Choate even wrote a book about it, Agents of Influence: How Japan's Lobbyists in the United States Are Manipulating Western Political and Economic Systems.

Today there is no talk of Japan as a rising power. In 1990 the Japanese stock market bubble burst and share prices fell 68 percent over three years. Thirty-three years later the Nikkei average is still 20 percent below 1989 highs. The Japanese real estate bubble burst as well, bringing double-digit contractions in previously overheated urban property markets.

Along the way Japan became thoroughly westernized. In the get-rich-quick economy of the 1970s and 80s, the country was saturated with an American popular culture emphasizing instant gratification, that crack cocaine for the soul that undermines family values such as thrift, patience and long-term thinking. After the 1990s collapse a sense of anomie set in. Families suffered.

Japan last had replacement-level fertility in 1973 (2.14). Last year it was 1.3.  However, this is not just a “Japan problem.” If present trends continue, all the world’s most developed countries will experience population decline. South Korea’s population declined for the first time, by 57,000, from 2020 to 2021. China’s decline has just begun.  Russia’s population registered its first decline (.02 percent) in 2021. Japan is simply the demographic canary in the coal mine.

The high costs of rearing children, government’s haphazard approach to enacting family-friendly policies and a family-averse workaholic culture are certainly no help. In such a social climate women marry later and pursue careers over family. Men are consumed with “success”. So the government even runs dating services, as many 20-somethings show no interest in relationships or even socializing apart from fellow workers. Something is really wrong.

As America’s chief ally in Asia, Japan is firmly tethered to US dollar hegemony. A military build-up is underway, an expense they were spared during boom times. But with a population just one-tenth of China’s, Japan’s population decline will inevitably tip the Asia-Pacific scales more to China.

The lack of working age people imposes limitations, so Japan has been quite creative in utilizing robotics and artificial intelligence to compensate for lost manpower. Immigration is strictly limited, and new arrivals are mostly elder care workers from elsewhere in Asia. 

Compounding the effects of low fertility, Japan has one of the highest life expectancies and the world’s highest proportion of elderly (65 and above) at 30 percent -- projected to surpass 40 percent by the 2050s. The median age today is 49, expected to hit 53 by 2050. The US and China’s median ages are 39, projected respectively at 42 and 50 by mid-century.

As the world’s fastest ageing society, new challenges arise. There are unauthorized (and substandard) nursing homes, “corpse hotels” where bodies are stored awaiting cremation, while kodokushi (solitary death) has given rise to services that check on the elderly and handle disposition of personal belongings. There are also disappearing communities and millions of abandoned homes.

It is a sad situation – a warning (wake-up call?) for the rest of us. 

But there is hope. The way our world works, a global celebrity like Elon Musk speaking out can have an effect far surpassing that of scholarly studies and government commissions. According to Nikkei Asia:

…the tweet to his 90 million followers has shaken Japan's Twitterati and cast a fresh spotlight on the demographic woes that weigh on the nation's economic outlook.

As of 4 p.m. on Monday, Tokyo time, Musk's tweet had received about 100,000 likes. In addition, Japanese news outlets scurried to report on the grim warning from one of the world's most influential entrepreneurs.

Can a single tweet make a difference? There is no cachet comparable to being the world’s richest person.

This is not the first time Elon has spoken out about the birth dearth. Back in 2021, he said:

I can’t emphasize this enough: There are not enough people… One of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birth rate and the rapidly declining birth rate.

And yet, so many people, including smart people, think that there are too many people in the world and think that the population is growing out of control. It’s completely the opposite. Please look at the numbers — if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble, mark my words.

Seems like Elon values the Japanese people for who they are, not just for their economic utility. Bravo! He has definitely parted company with the Davos crowd.

Maybe Elon Musk is one of us.


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