Editorials

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.