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Staff writer

Japan has a population problem. On that, there is consensus. But agreement on the nature of the problem is a bit more complicated.

While some believe the archipelago is too crowded and could do with fewer people, others are convinced the population is in danger of withering away to nothing.

If you are the government, the decline in births is a headache.

The national birthrate has become a thorn in the government’s side — spiraling steadily downward since 1947, when it hit a high of 4.54 births per woman, to the current figure and all-time low of 1.38. The shrinking statistic has the government worried it will take the economy and Japanese culture with it.

So concerned is the government, that in 1997 the Prime Minister’s Office produced a paper detailing the threats of a shrinking populace, and in April the Health and Welfare Ministry set up a division under the Child and Families Bureau to pound out policy to stem the population drop.

The line coming from the government is that if Japan is not careful, it is going to send itself into the poorhouse.

But if you are Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies and head of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, there has never been a better time to let the population shrink because it is now that Japan has the strength and resources to deal with it.

By the middle of the next century, the nation’s population is expected to drop 20 percent to around 100 million.

And if taken to its mathematically logical but laughable conclusion, the current birthrate would in 3500 leave Japan a lonely place — with only one person.

“The fall in the birthrate will certainly affect the economy,” said Hiroaki Yamada of the Health Ministry group.

A gradual reduction in the nation’s population — fewer youth, more old folks — trim the number of productive citizens, sap national vitality and dent the economy, he explained.

With a smaller population, tax revenues will drop and there will be a shortage of funds for pensions and social welfare, Yamada said.

But to Ehrlich, the falling population is less an impending disaster and more of a blessing.

“Japan’s population should be shrinking for years to come,” he said. “I think Japan might be a really wonderful place to live with 25 million people.”

A shrinking population is a timely trend and opportunity not to be squandered, argued the distinguished population expert, who was recently in Tokyo to accept the Blue Planet Prize, an environmental award for his work on biology and population from the Asahi Glass Foundation.

Instead of piecing together a policy to prop up the already inflated population, the government should take advantage of the falling birthrate to achieve a more appropriate population, he said.

“I think that what the government should be doing is to encourage small families and working longer (in life). The government should be looking for social policies that will relieve problems of a stationary population — something that is a certainty in the future.”

Perhaps, something along the lines of helping industry shift from producing diapers for grandpa instead of baby clothes, he suggested, only half in jest.

Pushing to keep the population from shrinking is only postponing the inevitable, he argued, and this procrastination could prove dangerous.

“It is unavoidable. If you try to prevent a natural decrease in the population, you are passing on the problem of an aging population to future generations. And they may be less capable of addressing the problem.”

If Japan is ever going to tackle its population, now is the time, he said. The country has money, food for import is readily available and peace prevails. There is no guarantee this will be the case half a century from now.

Besides, economic contributions do not have to cease at a certain age. People should be able to continue being productive into their twilight years, he argued.

“There is no reason that people have to stop being economically productive at 65,” he said, emphasizing that senior citizens can be a resource, not a burden. If used wisely, the elderly can use their wealth of experience to pump money into the economy rather than simply being dead weight.

But the population problem goes beyond mere numbers. It is also a function of consumption.

“The key issue in judging overpopulation is not how many people can fit in any given space, but whether the population’s requirements for food, water, materials, energy (and) ecosystem services can be met on a sustainable basis,” he said.

As it is, Japan and others are living beyond their means and “can only be affluent and crowded with people only because the rest of the world is not.”

Yes, something needs to be done, he said, but encouraging a larger population is not it.

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