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Japan’s population dilemma, in a single-occupancy nutshell


Staff Writer

This is the first of a five-part series on the population woes caused by Japan’s graying society and low birthrate.

It’s not your typical futuristic city. But if you want to see what Tokyo and the rest of Japan will soon look like, the Takashimadaira housing complex in northern Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward may be the place to visit.

It’s a massive, 43-year-old residential complex of 29 buildings, each 14 stories high.

At a glance, it may look like just another quiet danchi (public condominium), but inside, the population changes of the past few decades have wrought change unimaginable when it was built.

When the Takashimadaira complex opened in 1972, the community was full of hopeful young couples. The average age of its 20,000 residents was 25.5.

The population surged to about 30,000 within a few years, of whom about 10,000 were children 14 or younger.

Today, the population stands at about 15,000, of whom 50.2 percent are 65 or older, and there are only 644 children in the vast complex, a survey taken in October said.

“About half of the elderly people are living alone. Many unmarried people are living (there), too, so about 40 percent of the total 15,000 population are living on their own,” said Yoshio Muranaka, founder of the community newspaper Takashimadaira Shimbun, in a recent interview.

“Takashimadaira symbolizes the near future of Japan,” he said.

The rapid and drastic demographic changes experienced by Takashimadaira may reflect what is underway in society as a whole.

The nation’s total fertility rate (the number of children a woman bears in her lifetime if she bore children according to the age-specific birth rate of each generation of a given year ), stood at a record low of 1.42 in 2014. A population usually shrinks if its TFR is lower than 2.1.

According to a simulation by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan will lose one-third of its 128 million people by 2060, and the ratio of elderly, defined as those 65 or older, will surge to 39.9 percent from the current 24.1 percent during the same period.

“No country in world history has seen such a rapid decrease of its population in an age of a peaceful and rich society,” said Noriko Tsuya, a professor at Keio University who studies demographics.

If the population crisis is left unattended it will shatter the national goal embraced since Japan’s late 19th century modernization: to become a global economic powerhouse and a leading player on the world stage.

Japan’s gross national income accounted for 15 percent of the world’s total in 1995. It will fall to 5.2 percent in 2050 and a mere 1.7 percent in 2100 if the current trend continues, according to a simulation by the Japan Center for Economic Research (JCER), a Tokyo-based think tank affiliated with the Nikkei business daily.

The economic impact of the nation’s rapid graying has been keenly felt at Takashimadaira.

Muranaka ran a children’s clothes shop for 22 years, only to close it in 1996 as the number of children drastically fell.

Other child-related businesses shut down, too, ranging from toy shops, photo shops, a swimming school and cram schools to clothing shops for young mothers, Muranaka recalled.

“Fewer children means less consumption. A shortage of children has ruined the town,” he said.

Demographers say the biggest factor in the low fertility rate is the high numbers of single people, followed by a decrease in the number of children married couples have.

This might mean Japan will see a drastic increase in lifelong singles, as is the case with Takashimadaira. The nuclear family concept is collapsing and will force an eventual redesign of the tax and social security systems.

According to the welfare ministry, as of 2010, 20.1 percent of men aged 50 and 10.6 percent of women the same age have never married and are unlikely to do so.

The welfare ministry’s white paper for 2015 predicted those ratios will be 29 and 19.2 percent, respectively, in 2035, as more people choose not to get married.

“From now on, we will have more and more unmarried elderly people, in particular men. But all the social systems of this country, including the tax, public pension and public nursing systems, are based on the assumption that everyone will have a family,” said Tsuya of Keio University. “This tradition is now collapsing in Japan.”

For example, the public nursing system for the elderly is designed to support family members who are looking after an elderly person at home. It has not yet addressed single-person households.

A rapidly aging society with fewer children will also make it much more costly to support the elderly, sapping the disposable income of the working generation. This means Japan will be far poorer than now, said Sumio Saruyama, lead economist at JCER.

“Japan has spent too much of its social security budget on the elderly rather than on the child-raising generation,” Saruyama said. “We need to fix this. Otherwise, the tax and social security systems won’t be sustainable.”

Is there any way to save Japan from this population crisis?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently started advocating a higher national birth rate of 1.8, instead of the current 1.42, to ensure the populace will be at least 100 million in fifty years’ time — the government’s first population target.

Abe has also pledged to create 500,000 new slots at day care centers by early next decade.

Many economists and demographers welcomed Abe’s efforts to put more emphasis on the child-raising generation, but they doubt it will work.

JCER conducted research on 32 developed countries and found that those providing more public benefits to child-raising households, particularly in-kind benefits, such as those for day care services, tend to have higher birth rates.

If a country raises the in-kind benefits for a child-raising household by 1 percentage point of its gross domestic product, it raises the birthrate by 0.5 point, JCER claimed.

Thus JCER said Japan would need to spend 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product, a sum of ¥8 trillion for now, on child-raising households to boost the TFR to 1.8 from the current 1.42.

If Japan accepts 200,000 immigrants a year on top of that, the population would stabilize at around 90 million in 2100, according to the simulation by JCER.

Abe’s government adopted the target of 1.8 after examining policy proposals from JCER. But it has ruled out the second proposal — throwing open the doors to immigrants — in a reflection of Abe’s conservative support base.

Instead, Abe’s government has only eased visa regulations for skilled professionals and for temporary workers needed in specific understaffed manufacturing industries.

Tsuya of Keio University, too, remains highly skeptical about the effectiveness of Abe’s pledge and measures to boost the TFR to 1.8.

The population will keep aging faster than that of any other major nation, making it extremely difficult to prevent shrinkage, she said.

“It took 126 years for France to see the ratio of the elderly aged 65 or older increase from 7 to 14 percent. In Japan, it took just 24 years,” Tsuya pointed out.

So far, no major country has succeeded in rebooting its TFR from below 1.5, Tsuya said.

Moreover, most developed countries that do succeed, including France and the nations of northern Europe, have tangibly greater gender equality and family-friendly legal regulations than Japan, Tsuya said.

This means the government should not set unrealistic targets for TFR. Rather, it should implement long-term measures to improve the quality of life for individual families, even if they may have little impact on helping the country achieve its macro-economic goals, she argued.

  • Sharad Majumdar

    The answer is so clear, yet myopic policy makers in Tokyo refuse to see it: immigration! I don’t mean the no-holds barred free-for-all currently happening in Europe and which has historically fueled American demographics, but a considered opening up of long-term residency options for select groups. We could implement a needs-based immigration policy, like Australia, where we offer long-term immigration to young people with certain skills that are in short supply in the country. We could look at increasing refugee numbers, especially skilled refugees from culturally akin nations from East and South-East Asia. We might even look to offer long-term residency following a “citizenship test” format like what UK uses, to check if candidates are understanding of Japanese society and willing to assimilate. I don’t understand why we must act as if this demographic decline is Japan’s inexorable fate when it very obviously doesn’t have to be.

  • The Disturbed One

    Japan already offers permanent residency within just 3 years for people who gather 70 points and are eligible for a highly skilled visa.

    It is important for the Japanese to preserve their culture, and continue to be one of the safest countries in the world, rather than become a victim of multiculturalism like some European countries.

  • Ron Lane

    For one, the math seems off: if a 1% increase in spending for in-kind benefits raises TFR by 0.1%, then Japan would have to increase spending close to 4% to raise TFR from 1.42 to 1.8. That’s quite different than a 1.5% increase as stated in the article.

    Two, studies show that the TFR for women who have children is above 2.0 which implies that the real problem isn’t getting women to have more children but rather getting women married and encouraging those married couples to have children. So why do so many young adults chose to either remain single or if married, chose to not have children? The Japanese workplace may be the greatest disincentive to both marriage and childbirth as more young people aren’t encouraged to enter a soul-sapping system . . . while those who do enter recognize the near impossibility of working full-time and raising children at the same time.

    The likelihood of the workplace changing anytime soon so as to prevent demographic disaster isn’t good. Not when money’s involved and profits at stake.

  • Guy Hubbard

    Japan is overcrowded anyway. It would be much nicer with a population of 90 million. Just increase the retirement age.


    JAPAN should ease VISA on arrival restrictions to Indians and allow them to work for some months to overcome the shortage of manpower. India has surplus workforce which can help JAPAN to at least temporarily overcome the shortfall. Nobody can help Japan as educated women will not go for kids as they are considered as nuisance by most of them


    JAPAN should ease VISA on arrival restrictions to Indians and allow them to work for some months to overcome the shortage of manpower. India has surplus workforce which can help JAPAN to at least temporarily overcome the shortfall. Nobody can help Japan as educated women will not go for kids as they are considered as nuisance by most of them

  • 紬士・こだまカウンターヒル

    It was difficult to have a child because shortage income of family and very difficult to more than 3 million yen per year and school expenses was very expensive.
    Shortage of workers? Most Japanese company doesn’t want hire who age 30s and 40s and send tens of resumes, but failed all of them.

  • John Farrelly

    We are told that Climate Change; now unstoppable, will reduce populations and from my window here in a browning multi culti Ireland I see…. well floods and floods and floods. Japan is doing what we are all being told we must do and reduce human number. Roll on climate change if only to silence the poisonous Left.

  • Rebane

    > the population crisis […] will shatter the national goal embraced since Japan’s late 19th century modernization: to become a global economic powerhouse and a leading player on the world stage.

    150-year-old “national goal?” – a total anachronism. This is not what the current population crisis” is about.

  • ジャシンダ(Jashinda)

    As much as I agree with the immigration ideals, my main concern is domestic safety. I think Japan is doing good with how they’re watching and keeping eye on places like Europe and seeing how that goes. I would just bar people from known countries that have people who pop off frequently. And then bar those from said country who try to go to a different country to try to slip under the radar.

    But I never knew the severity of the birthrate and aging population issues. I hope they get resolved soon. ^^

  • Evolutionary1

    The Japanese are steadily going extinct, as are the Koreans and Westerners.

    Only Muslims, blacks and some others are reproducing.

    Natalism wins at the end of the day.

  • Anpanman

    Japan is too crowded now, why have it more crowded simply so the wealthy can have a higher stock value and more “power” on the world stage?

  • John

    If you are a foreigner (esp asian), then it is very difficult to grow within a Japanese company. You cannot become a manager or director. That’s the way the Japanese society is. I will not recommend any foreigner to take up PR in japan unless you are in business or has a japanese spouse.