Preliminary findings in the 2010 census released Feb. 25 by the internal affairs ministry underline the overall trend of a shrinking and graying population as well as a demographic imbalance characterized by a population rise in a few prefectures and a population drop in most prefectures.
Japan cannot lose any time in working out policies that will effectively cope with undesirable effects from this population trend, including the further weakening — economically and socially — of rural areas.
The policies should include measures to revitalize local economies, improved assistance to child-rearing families and development of nursing care services that will sufficiently take care of aged people.
More importantly the government should pursue policies designed to increase stable employment opportunities for young people so that they can become financially secure enough to marry and have children.
As of Oct. 1, 2010, Japan’s population stood at about 128,056,000, an increase of about 285,000 or 0.2 percent from the 2005 census. The ministry says the slight population increase was due to an increase in the number of foreigners living in Japan and a temporary rise in the birthrate. But the population growth rate of 0.2 percent is the lowest since the census was first taken in 1920.
The ministry’s population estimate shows that Japan’s population has declined for two consecutive years. It believes that the trend of a decreasing population has firmly set in.
The number of households topped 50 million for the first time and stood at some 51,951,500 as of Oct. 1, an increase of 4.8 percent from the 2005 census. The average number of people in one household hit a record low of 2.46. It is believed that this is mainly because the number of households consisting of one aged person living alone has been on a rise.
In 2005, for each person aged 65 or over, there were 3.3 people in the working-age population (aged 20 to 64). But it is estimated that in 2030, for each person aged 65 or over, there will be only 1.7 people in the working-age population.
It is clear that the number of younger people who shoulder the cost for pension and medical and nursing care services for the aged will greatly fall. Long-range reform of the social welfare and tax system will be inevitable.
An increase in the number of one-person households in the midst of an aging population will cause a serious social problem. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates that one-person households became the largest group in 2006 among various types of households, accounting for 29.8 percent of the total.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Medical Examiner’s Office reports that in 2009, 3,875 people in Tokyo’s 23 wards died alone in their residences in 2009, about three times the corresponding figure in 1990. About 70 percent of them were males. Causes of death included suicide, illness and accidents.
Local governments, people in communities and nongovernmental organizations should make efforts to prevent those living alone from becoming isolated. In working out a future nursing care services system, the health and welfare ministry must take into account the fact that quite a large number of aged people have no people to rely on in their households.
The 2010 census shows that the population is concentrating in large urban areas while rural areas are losing their population. The population increased from the 2005 census in nine prefectures — Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka, Kanagawa, Okinawa, Shiga, Aichi and Fukuoka.
Conspicuously Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama and Osaka saw their population growth rate accelerate.
In contrast, the population decreased in as many as 38 prefectures. Among them are six prefectures — Shizuoka, Mie, Okayama, Tochigi, Kyoto and Hyogo — whose populations had increased in the 2005 census and then declined.
In 30 prefectures including Akita, Aomori and Kochi, the population decrease rate accelerated. It also must be noted that the population decreased in 1,321 municipalities, about three-quarters of the nation’s total municipalities.
On Feb. 21, the long-range perspective committee of the land and infrastructure ministry’s National Land Development Council said in its interim report that if the current demographic trend continues, about 20 percent of the land area where people were living in 2005 will have no residents in 2050.
It is imperative to work out policies that will attract people to rural areas. More power should be transferred from the central government to local governments to make them creative in crafting measures to revitalize their areas. The central and local governments also have to make efforts to make agriculture and forestry lucrative.
It is also important to improve medical and nursing care services and public transport in rural areas. Doing so will increase people’s quality of life and encourage them to stay there.