Only our descendants will know for sure, but we may be witnessing something not seen in the world since the slow demise of ancient Egypt — a nation expiring of natural causes. Nations, unlike people, are potentially immortal. When they die, it’s usually violently. Japan may make history by its manner of leaving it. It may simply crumble into dust.
That its vital signs are weakening is well known, and though the words “natural death” are not used, expressions just short of them are, conveying an unspoken, unspeakable fear of the worst-case scenario, that this is a country without a future. Two examples among many: “The truth about Japan you don’t know,” Shukan Gendai headlined ominously last month. “Japan at rock bottom,” added Shukan Shincho last week.
In August 1983, the American weekly Time put out a special issue on Japan and asked, bedazzled, “What is this place, this center of international attention, worry, amazement?” Yes, Japan was a power in those days, surging, mysterious, “a power without arms” — and yet even then there were worrying portents. The Japanese people, Time warned, “could be outrunning their sun.”
So it looks nearly 30 years later. Population? After peaking in 2004 at 127.8 million it dropped to 127.5 million in 2009 and now looks headed into free fall — to 115.2 million by 2030, 70 million by 2070, according to government projections. It’s a nationwide phenomenon. Forty-six of the 47 prefectures are depopulating, Okinawa being the lone exception.
Age? In 2009, 22.7 percent of the population was 65 or over (as against 7.9 percent in 1970); by 2030, experts say, 31.8 percent will be; by 2055, 40.5 percent.
Rising age and declining population are a recipe for — what? Nobody knows because it’s never happened before on anything like this scale. Shukan Gendai’s “truth about Japan” story assessed the ramifications, and they are unsettling even to those inclined to rather like the notion of a smaller, less frenetic, less blindly ambitious, more relaxed, more thoughtful society.
In an overpopulated world a major nation’s downsizing could be a salutary example, but that’s a very long-term view. Before anything salutary emerges the immediate problems to be solved include shrinking and finally vanishing services, facilities and infrastructure that a developed society takes for granted. Running water, for instance. Schools. Transportation links.
It’s already happening. Some of the remote islands of Nagasaki Prefecture are depopulating at a rate of 15 percent in 10 years. In one, regular flights to the mainland were canceled in 2006; another will lose its ferry link to the mainland in March.
City folk crushed daily for hours in packed commuter trains might relish the thought of fewer passengers. The more likely prospect, says Shukan Gendai, is fewer trains — or none.
Local water boards confront what experts call “the 2040 problem.” By that year, they calculate, depopulation will have reduced demand to the point that rates will no longer finance repairs to pipes to prevent leakage and contamination. Clear running water will be a luxury.
Roughly 1,000 elementary schools have shut down in the past five years. Among the survivors are some that can’t muster enough students for sports teams. Hospitals, of course, face the opposite problem — more patients than they can handle.
Coming-of-Age Day on Jan. 10 set a new record for the fourth consecutive year — the fewest number of 20-year-olds ever. Predictable yet shocking — in 1970 there were twice as many. This year as always there was some rowdiness at local ceremonies, but Shukan Shincho found itself more troubled by how little of it there was, relative to past years, than by how much. Rowdiness is deplorable of course, but even as elders display their hard-won sagacity by deploring it, they know the value of the youthful energy it vents. Give the youngsters a few more years and they’ll put it to better use.
But what if that energy is not there? Ceremonies unfold with more decorum, but what are the implications otherwise? That they must be identified and confronted is reflected in an astonishing fact. Of course, the young are forever astonishing the old; there’s nothing new there, but generally it’s youthful excess that shocks, not youthful . . . what to call it? When, as a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey revealed last month, fully one-third of adolescent boys aged 16 to 19 claim to have no interest in sex, a line is being crossed that suggests not simply new developments under new circumstances but a newly evolved species.
Disinterest in sex is rising in both genders of all ages, the survey shows. It was this which prompted Shukan Shincho’s “rock bottom” remark. “It’s true,” affirms a 23-year-old male university student to whom the weekly speaks, “that many men have no interest in women. My own friends seem quite satisfied to moon over anime voice actresses and computer game characters.”
When a nation sinks to that, it seems reasonable to regard the future with grim foreboding.