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Can five Little Japans defuse one big demographic time bomb?

by Mark Gottlieb

Contributing Writer

Whenever I encounter a particularly perplexing aspect of Japanese society, I turn for enlightenment to my pal Nobu.

Over the nearly 20 years of our friendship, he has proved to be the most reliable source of insight into his country that I could ever hope to find.

Our most recent colloquy, for example, centered on my curiosity about an issue of looming danger to the nation: the aging population and falling birth rate that together comprise Japan’s demographic time bomb.

Characteristically, Nobu responded to my initial query with a question of his own.

“Why,” he asked, “are Nordic people so satisfied with their lives?”

Ah, yes. Pure Nobu.

By training a traditional engineer, my friend nonetheless sometimes thinks so far outside the box that he seems beyond shouting distance of it. Upon reflection, however, his points usually make perfect sense.

In this case, Nobu wanted to know why Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland invariably appear at the top of annual studies gauging national happiness, always ranking far higher than Japan.

He noted that each of those countries generates a far smaller GDP than Japan’s, each imposes far greater taxes on its citizens and all possess diminutive populations that pose demographic challenges of their own. Why, then, did the Land of the Rising Sun face a grim future while those otherwise dour Vikings capered happily under their midnight sun?

Nobu wondered if Japan should emulate a Nordic approach to governance, to ensure the future happiness of its own people. But would Northern European solutions work in Asia? What might they be, and how exactly should they be implemented?

A week after broaching the subject, we met in a Nagoya coffee shop to chew things over. It was no surprise that he had already come up with a formula for dealing with Japan’s predicament. What was surprising was that he had five of them.

What if, he began, Japan were to do nothing — merely follow the current course? What consequences would ensue?

We agreed that Option 1 was problematic. Today, for example, three active Japanese workers support each retiree. By 2045, only two workers would support each senior citizen. At that point, taxes would have to rise, GDP would suffer, domestic consumption would decline and the standard of living would erode. Would that make people happy?

He then outlined Options 2 through 4 — all variations on a theme of marginal change: inaugurate programs to encourage a rising birthrate, welcome young immigrants to augment the workforce, enhance the social safety net by raising the tax burden to approximate that of Nordic countries, and so on.

Each approach carried complications that we both saw as intractable. Increasing immigration, for example, immediately created two obvious problems: Immigrants from where, exactly? And, once they were here, how would they be melded into a culture that had limited experience with assimilation?

The future was looking bleak until Nobu offered Option 5, his most radical idea.

“What if we do not try to grow Japan?” he said. “What if we choose to become smaller?”

Could social services and quality of life be maintained if population numbers found their own level of equilibrium and the country re-imagined itself in light of this new reality?

Nobu’s big idea was “Little Japans.”

He envisioned a confederation of five semi-autonomous “regions,” each delineated roughly by geography and population: Hokkaido-Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai-Chugoku-Shikoku and Kyushu-Okinawa. Each region would contain approximately the same number of people, and each would be devoted primarily but not exclusively to specific sectors of the economy: respectively, agriculture and tourism; financial services; manufacturing; tourism and commerce; and manufacturing, agriculture and international trade.

There would still be a central national government, but the Little Japans would have a “softer” connection with it and with each other. They would enjoy a degree of home rule, allowing them more flexibility with regional taxation, education policy and other areas in which they might experiment to find approaches that worked better than the status quo.

Interesting idea, I thought. But what about the current national highway and train systems? The central bank, the military, national diplomacy? Would there be multiple currencies? Multiple passports? Would Little Japans still constitute “Japan”?

To his everlasting credit, Nobu responded as he had done years earlier when I asked his opinion on an equally knotty problem.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I need to read some books and think more to make my view clear.”

Who of your acquaintance would decline to offer an opinion based on the mere quibble of not knowing enough about the subject under discussion?

In an appropriate coda to our talk, however, he left me with one further thought.

“Is it such a bad thing that population is going down?” he wondered. “We could have more space, fewer traffic jams, easier rush hours. Perhaps there is a way to enjoy it.”

Ah, yes. Pure Nobu.

Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan.

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