National / Social Issues | DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES

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

by Reiji Yoshida

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.