Japan’s depopulation time bomb

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research on March 27 announced a population estimate for Japan in 2040. As expected, what emerges out of this is a nation with an unprecedented rapidly aging and declining population. The implications of the estimate must be taken very seriously and preparations made to ameliorate the impact of this situation.

The estimate shows population trends in 2040 for each municipality. It is imperative that both the central and local governments design a sustainable social security system in time as well as to consider ways to secure a sufficient number of workers to prevent a decline in industrial capability. Local governments also need to work out measures aimed at maintaining and stabilizing people’s lives in local communities by foreseeing what will happen to their industries, social services, transportation and so on.

The estimate shows that Japan’s population in 2040 will stand at 107.276 million, a decline of about 20 million from 2010’s 128.057 million. A January 2012 estimate by the same institute had shown that in 2060, Japan’s population will number 86.737 million, about 30 percent less from the 2010 level.

Japan has been experiencing a natural population decrease since 2007, with annual deaths topping births. In 2011, the total fertility rate — the average number of babies a woman gives birth to during her life — was 1.39. A total fertility rate of 2.07 is required to maintain population levels. Although the public sector has been taking steps to make it easier for women to have more children, it will be extremely difficult to improve the situation.

In 2010, there were no prefectures where the percentage of people aged 65 or older exceeded 30 percent, but in 2040 all prefectures will be like that. The most aged prefecture will be Akita, where 43.8 percent of the population will be age 65 or older while the youngest prefecture will be Okinawa (30.3 percent). In Hokkaido and 39 other prefectures, people aged 75 or older will account for more than 20 percent of the population.

In 25 of the nation’s 47 prefectures, the population in 2040 will be more than 20 percent lower than the 2010 level. Among those prefectures are Hokkaido, most Tohoku prefectures, six prefectures bordering the Sea of Japan, all prefectures in Shikoku and four prefectures in Kyushu. The population will fall by more than 30 percent in Akita and Aomori prefectures. The population index in 2040 will drop to 64.4 in Akita Prefecture, the biggest fall from the index of 100 in 2010, followed by Aomori (67.9) and Kochi (70.2) in that order. Okinawa will experience the smallest decline (98.3), followed by Tokyo’s 23 wards (93.5) and Shiga (92.8) in that order.

The institute has published population trends for every municipality with the exception of those in Fukushima Prefecture due to the impact of the nuclear disaster. In 2040, the populations in 1,603 municipalities or 95.2 percent of the total, will be less than in 2010. In about 70 percent of them, their population will see a drop of 20 percent or more from the 2010 level. In only 80 municipalities, or 4.8 percent, the population will increase.

The progress in the graying of the nation means that the need for social services for residents such as medical and nursing care services will increase. The population decrease means that the nation’s total tax revenues will decline. As a result, grants from the central government to local governments will diminish. Both the central and local governments must find ways to overcome the imbalance between revenues and outlays. It will become all the more important for both the public and private sectors to increase chances for women to fully utilize their abilities in the workforce.

The effects of a population decrease are already being felt. Cases in which road bridges have been closed to traffic because of a lack of funds for maintenance and a drop in the number of users are increasing. Forests exist whose owners are now unknown. The number of vacant houses are increasing. Some municipalities have passed by-laws under which they will demolish vacant houses that have become dangerously dilapidated.

In the countryside, traffic consists mainly of privately owned vehicles. As the population grays, however, more and more elderly people will be unable to drive, making it difficult for them to buy food and other essentials or to receive medical care. In local communities in mountainous areas in particular it is becoming extremely difficult to maintain a suitable level of social services for residents. It will become necessary for local governments to concentrate essential facilities such as medical institutions and administrative organizations in certain areas and take administrative steps to relocate elderly people who need such services so they can be close to them.

It will also become necessary for local governments to reactivate local industries such as agriculture, fisheries and tourism. Steps should be taken to attract young people to agriculture and fisheries and add value to agricultural and fishery products through processing appealing to consumers and effective marketing. While it will likely be necessary to encourage more businesses to engage in agriculture and fisheries, oversight will be necessary to prevent them from causing environmental damage, overly exploiting resources or having a negative impact on local communities.

Tourism should be used to attract people from urban areas to the countryside. Local governments must consider how to best utilize sceneries, historical sites, local food, traditional performing arts and so forth to promote tourism. They should also establish incentives that will encourage urban residents to buy second homes in their communities.

To overcome the difficulties caused by a graying and shrinking population, it will be vital to cultivate people who can come up with creative ideas on how to revitalize local communities and can exercise leadership in translating those ideas into action. It will also be helpful to set up cooperative relations between rural municipalities and urban areas. Local governments should not spare any efforts in these endeavors.

  • Max Erimo

    Until Japan becomes a nation where gender and racial equality exist, slowing or stopping the population decline will be impossible. Women are expected to give up work when they marry and especially when they have children. Teachers and nurses are the exception. Surviving while raising a family on the pultry salaries paid by companies makes it almost unthinkable for the young modren Japanese person to consider having children. The government needsto act immediately and decisively. Two things that the Japanese are not good at. If the government is looking for money to create new iniatatives maybe it could use all the money it wastes chasing whales in the Southern ocean every year. The average Japanese national has no idea how and where their government watses billions of yen every year.

    • Mints

      Actually, countries with relatively high gender equality tend to have low birth rates. Declining population is an issue that every industrialized society has faced, and so far, immigration has been the only effective solution. Racial equality only comes through a long experience with immigration. Whether Japan eventually chooses to accept mass immigration is the big question right now. Most people in Japan seem resigned to watch the country shrink. That appears to be the stance in this editorial, as well.

      • blimp

        Mints, that is not necessarily true. Countries like the Nordic countries and the Netherlands which usually ranks top in gender equality all have higher (not automatically high though) birth rates or fertility rates than for instance Japan, Korea, Taiwan or some of the southern European countries.

      • Mints

        You are right about the higher birth rates in Scandinavian countries. The progressive laws and social systems designed to make it easier for families to raise children are undoubtedly having an effect. But these countries are also promoting immigration, and immigrants tend to have more children than the host population. In Sweden, for example, the fertility rate of foreign-born women was 2.21 compared to 1.82 for Swedish-born women in 2007. Births registered to foreign-born mothers accounted for 22 percent of all births in the country. One of the reasons for this is that immigrants are younger on average.

      • blimp

        Mints, very true.
        As the saying goes, no policy is an island. (or, wait, perhaps it was “no man is an island”)

      • itoshima2012

        look at the data carefully, in Scandinavian countries most children are born into immigrant families which tend to have large families – idem in FRance. Most native population in Europe are declining. Actually a good trend, but I guess only bad news makes news so if one can’t find something negative in this actually good news it wouldn’t make news would it….. a bit like, would the government decide to build a heated pool for everybody in Japan the News wouldn’t be huha how great but, “experts foresee high number of drownings” ecc…… I think with 7 billion on this planet and counting it’s a good thing that population in a totally overcrowded island nation is declining, so what?

  • Eric

    Statistics always assume that trends will continue unchanged. That is not the case. Yes, population will gray and diminish, but it is foolish to predict more than one generation into the future. The next generation of mostly only children may make up for having no siblings by having 3 or 4. Or they may continue the trend. The point is, the future is unwritten.

  • Use of English as second working language and more extensively in daily use and then encouraging foreign workers to take citizenship may solve the problem. Japan will have to accept multi-racial society eventually to maintain public services in place.

    • itoshima2012

      blabla, also multi racial societies age, or does anybody think actually before believing the dogma of “we need immigrants to survive”, if that would be the solution you would have to keep immigration flowing to massive levels and the system one day would still implode because people age or should we (I know, big business would love this…) just decide an age limit or should we call it “best possible consumtion interval” after which we “erase” the aged that could become a burden to society….

      • Christopher-trier

        Immigration also helps to create a permanent underclass in semi-closed or closed societies which more often than not becomes a greater drain on society. If semi-closed European societies cannot easily cope with this, how can a closed society like Japan cope?

  • blimp

    If one is allowed to be a bit radical, the Government should not focus on making it easier for women to have children but rather for men to have and raise children. If men would also take child leave, whether forced through legislation or incentivised to take paternal leave, companies would not see women as a relatively riskier choice in hiring. The company culture should also change, again either through legislation or incentives, so that it will be equally natural for men to leave the company after eight working hours.

    With men being able to do the above, hopefully life will be easier for women as well.

    • larsp

      Why are we not applauding a declining population? does anyone really think that 7B+ people on this planet is a good thing??

      The World should rather develop a political/economic system whereby declining populations create more wealth – Japan could be in the forefront of this experiment.

  • This is a good thing, one day Japan will have a population where it will be possible to feed itself.

    Unlike other countries!!!

    • Ren