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Japan’s population is charting a downward trajectory.

While there is consensus that Japan’s population will start decreasing sometime between now and 2007, opinions differ on precisely when it will start and how far the population will drop.

The fall has been a long time coming. The nation’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman has during her life — hit subreplacement levels around 30 years ago and registered 1.35 last year.

Population modeler Iwao Fujimasa is convinced the population will drop faster, fall further and yet be less painful than government predictions.

After a career in medicine at the University of Tokyo, Fujimasa accepted a job at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and is currently studying population trends.

“One of the first things I realized was that what everyone is saying is bunk,” Fujimasa said. This led him to create his own population model.

The government-affiliated National Institute of Population and Social Security Research says the population will peak at around 127 million around 2007 before shrinking to roughly 100 million by the mid-21st century and around 63 million by 2100.

But Fujimasa’s model, which assumes a depressed total fertility rate in line with current trends, assumes the population will slip to 100 million by around 2030 and about 70 million in 2055, roughly 30 years ahead of government predictions.

Demographers have a penchant for overestimating future birthrates, Fujimasa said.

“They keep saying that a population decrease is exceptional because in the past they have only had to deal with growth. They have no experience with this and no precedent,” he said.

Fujimasa has since coauthored a book on Japan’s shrinking population and is currently working on another on the economics of population loss in an effort to debunk the current government projections and the official line that a smaller population is bad.

He believes the government has overestimated the total fertility rate, leading to a deceptively gentle population decrease in government models.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research assumes the current decline in births is a temporary lull that will rebound as women marry later in life and have children. Institute demographer Akira Ishikawa said this will mildly resuscitate the total fertility rate to 1.6 children per woman by 2022.

In contrast, Fujimasa’s model predicts a birth rate of 1.15 in 2022. He contends there will be no rebound and the birthrate will continue to fall for the foreseeable future.

Fujimasa sees population shrinkage as a natural result of an aging society and changing female behavior.

“Data show that as the percentage of elderly rises, the birthrate goes down,” he said. “The same tendency is visible in other countries. It is a simple, correlative relationship.”

When a nation’s elderly population reaches 7 percent of the total its birthrate drops below 2.1, the replacement rate, Fujimasa said, and when elderly people make up 14 percent of the population or more, no country has been able to attain a fertility rate above 1.8.

More than 15 percent of the population in Japan are elderly, and demographers predict the figure to top 30 percent by 2040.

But while Fujimasa and government-affiliated demographers disagree on the numbers, they do see eye to eye on some issues.

Both agree that the population will shrink in the foreseeable future, attributing the decline to a fall in marriages as well as their delay to an older age — nearly 70 percent of men and 50 percent of women remain unmarried through their 20s. Both parties agree the government can do little to boost birthrates.

The two parties also believe the capital will continue as a key indicator of national birth trends. Tokyo’s ratio of single people is higher than the national average and it has the nation’s lowest birthrate — a paltry 1.03 in 1999.

While the two agree a smaller population will have big implications for the country, opinion is divided on what these will be.

Fujimasa predicts the coming demographic shift and population decline will bring a mix of good and bad, while the government is less sanguine about the effects.

In a 1999 paper on measures to deal with a falling birthrate, a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers noted that since around 1970, women have been having “fewer children than needed to sustain the population.”

It outlines fears that “a sudden drop in the number of children will, through such factors as the reduction of the labor pool, raising of the ratio of elderly in the population and reducing market scale . . . adversely affect the nation’s socioeconomic situation by having a negative impact on economic growth, dampening activities of local communities and damage the healthy maturation of children.”

But ever the contrarian, Fujimasa said fears that a declining population will lead to economic disaster are highly overstated.

“In Japan, much of the noise (against) depopulation comes from industry, which depends on young people to fuel business,” he said. “It is just the logic of money (talking).”

He believes that while depopulation could depress the real estate market and affect the financial standing of banks dependent on real estate prices, as well as rattle the pension system, it will probably have a big plus side. He pointed to possible trends such as boosting gender equality, breaking down generation gaps and ultimately allowing for a more relaxed way of living.

Land prices will fall, people will be able to afford bigger homes and the daily crush on trains will be lessened, he said.

For a preview of things to come, Fujimasa recommended a visit to Towa, Yamaguchi Prefecture, a town where over half the population is 65 or older.

“People in Towa get by just fine. And so will people elsewhere,” he said.

“It will be similar to the Edo Period, when the nation’s population was mostly stable. Isn’t stability the ideal?”

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