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The Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century wreaked profound long-term effects. Some historians believe it took 80 years for human populations to recover in most parts of the continent, and well over a century in certain areas.

Much is being reported on the impact of the current pandemic in economic terms, but less so in demographic terms, which are harder to compile in real time.

Writing in Shukan Shincho (April 15), journalist Masashi Kawai has done some number-crunching and comes to the terrifying conclusion that 2021 will be remembered as the year of the “baby shock,” in which Japan’s already low birth rate will decline to the extent that already gloomy projections for population figures will be accelerated by roughly 18 years.

This is calculated on the basis of a 10% drop in new pregnancies and marriages, resulting in the combined figure of 750,000 for 2021 — a level that had previously been projected for 2039. In other words, what had been a gradual decline has turned into a collapse.

Numerous factors may be at work. Firstly, women are afraid to enter hospitals to give birth over fears of contracting COVID-19. The pandemic also discourages the traditional practice of expectant mothers returning to their parents’ hometowns to give birth and recuperate. And the third factor is economic, brought about by such things as anxieties over declining household income.

The implications will be broad and far-reaching, With a declining working population, unless a substantial foreign labor pool can be secured, small- and medium-sized businesses in particular are likely to fail due to a shortage of workers.

Nor will the higher ratio of people 65 and older in the population mean more consumption by that age segment. Out of fears of serious illness or death from COVID-19, older people have become less mobile. With lack of physical exercise and mental stimulation aggravating their frail conditions, intervention is likely to be needed sooner.

As Kawai points out, by the time we get to 2045, only 591,000 births are projected. By 2065, that number will have declined to 410,000, which averages out to just over 9,000 births per year in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

By 2040, Japan’s population will have declined by 14.1 million people from its current level, transforming it into “a country that has lost its youth.”

“If the government doesn’t get serious,” Kawai warns, “in the near future we’ll see a country in decline, that may be swallowed up by foreign capital.”

Choking on plastic

With more people remaining indoors due to enforced or voluntary lockdowns, lower carbon emissions have resulted in improved air quality in urban areas. But by avoiding eating in restaurants more people have been consuming take-out meals, which means more plastic waste. This does not bode well for a number of reasons. For one, according to United Nations data, Japan already ranked second in the world on a per capita basis (after the U.S.) in generation of plastic waste from wrapping and packaging even before the pandemic.

In a wide-ranging interview appearing in Nikkan Gendai (March 26), Hideshige Takada, an authority on plastics in the environment, warns of hormone receptors in some plastics that can have an impact upon human fertility.

One additive is a substance called UV326, used to prevent plastic from deteriorating when exposed to ultraviolet light. But absorbed by the human body, it promotes metabolism of vitamin A, lowering resistance to infections. Another substance,

di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (abbreviated DEHP), is added to make plastics flexible, but can combine with the cells in the mucous membrane, potentially facilitating penetration by bacteria and viruses.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has banned numerous substances, but Japan has been lax about implementing regulations.

“Japanese companies change presidents one after the next, and during their short tenures they tend to focus on short-term profits,” Takada says. “Environmental problems need a long-term vision, and companies also need to consider gains and losses from the perspective of human well-being.”

Exporting the elderly

In 1986, the forerunner of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced “Silver Colombia 1992,” a plan to assist Japanese seniors to spend their retirement years in foreign countries. The program was widely denounced but continued under a less grandiose title, Kaigai Taizaigata Yoka Keikaku (Extended Leisure Stays Abroad).

Shukan Taishu (April 26), noting that in just four years, 30% of Japan’s population will be over age 65, foresees a “superannuated society” in which the social infrastructure will have to struggle to care for them. The solution, some believe, is to send large numbers of seniors to China.

“Last December, a press event held at a hotel in Gifu Prefecture announced a five-year plan to have older Japanese receive care service in China,” a reporter for a national daily is quoted as saying “The party was held in conjunction with the launching of a trans-national care service named Silver Times.”

Shoyu Tei, president of international care consultancy Silver Times, which was founded last October, denied involvement, saying, the five-year plan was proposed by a ministry on the Chinese side.

A staff member of LDP Diet member Seiko Noda’s office confirmed she had attended the event last December (she represents the district in Gifu where the event was held), but this was merely protocol. While her office denied any involvement with the five-year plan, the aforementioned reporter points out she caucuses with the LDP faction headed by Toshihiro Nikai, whose group favors closer ties with China.

Among those hotly opposed to the plan was Hirohide Inuzuka, head of a nationalist movement named Yachihoko-sha. The infuriated Inuzuka went so far as to accuse the planners of proposing a modern version of the legendary ancient practice of ubasute (the abandonment of older people, usually women, to die on a mountain).

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