Crunching the census numbers

The latest national census results underscore that Japan’s population decline is now here to stay — and that the shrinking population is concentrated more than ever in Tokyo and its environs. The Abe administration has vowed to fight the demographic trend and stop the population flight to Tokyo by revitalizing regional economies. What the government should also be doing is facing up to the demographic reality and preparing a blueprint on how to sustain the nation’s socioeconomic systems amid the population decline, including reform of medical and social security services.

The preliminary results of the 2015 census released last week paints a bleak picture of Japan’s demographic woes. The total population including foreign residents as of Oct. 1 was 127.11 million, down by 947,000, or 0.7 percent, from the previous census in 2010 — a fall that a Cabinet minister described as equivalent to the loss of one of the 47 prefectures. It was Japan’s first population decline as shown in the national census — which provides the nation’s basic data in various fields — since the survey began in 1920.

The figure makes Japan’s population the 10th largest in the world, and it is reportedly the only one among the world’s 20 most populous nations to have posted a decline over the 2010-2015 period.

The results also highlight the accelerating concentration of the population in the greater Tokyo area. The combined population of Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures rose by 510,000 to 36.13 million, accounting for 28 percent of the nation’s total. On the other hand, 39 prefectures posted population falls compared with five years earlier, and the decline accelerated in 33 of them. Akita’s population fell the sharpest at 5.8 percent, followed by Fukushima, Aomori and Kochi. Osaka’s population declined for the first time in nearly seven decades, and none of the prefectures whose population had fallen in the 2010 census managed to reverse the trend.

The data should come as no surprise. They follow the trend clearly shown in annual statistics. Japan’s population not including foreign residents has been on the decline after hitting a peak in 2009. Deaths have outnumbered births by around 200,000 annually in recent years as the fertility rate remains near its historic low and the population rapidly ages.

This natural decline in the population is estimated to have hit a record 294,000 in 2015. Japan had a record-low 635,000 newlywed couples last year, while the number of newborn babies rose slightly from the previous year’s historic low to 1.008 million — compared with more than 2 million each year during the second postwar baby boom of the early 1970s. The trend is not expected to change dramatically in the foreseeable future now that the number of women of child-bearing age has declined.

The population flight to the greater Tokyo area remains unabated. Data from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry show that the net influx of people there hit 119,000 in 2015, an increase of nearly 10,000 from the previous year. The other two major metropolitan areas — the one centering around Nagoya (Aichi, Gifu and Mie) and the one around Osaka that also encompasses Kyoto, Hyogo and Nara prefectures — both posted a net outflow for the third year in a row.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecasts that the national population decline will accelerate in the coming decades and reach 86.74 million in 2060. It estimates that the population will begin to fall by roughly 1 million each year starting around 2040. A private think tank has warned that the population decline and exodus to the Tokyo area will make nearly half of the municipalities across Japan unsustainable by 2040.

The Abe administration has vowed to take steps to keep the population at around 100 million in 2060. Along with its bid to revitalize the nation’s stagnant regional economies, the administration has set a target of raising the fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime — to 1.8 by the mid-2020s. That will be a major challenge, given that the fertility rate fell for the first time in nine years in 2014 to 1.42 — after inching up since hitting a historic low of 1.26 in 2005. Japan last saw a fertility rate of 1.8 in 1984. A population of 100 million in 2060 will need a recovery in the fertility rate to 2.07 — the level deemed necessary to stabilize the population, which Japan has not had since 1973 — by 2040.

Measures that have been either taken or advocated to fight the demographic trend, including steps to encourage young couples to have children as well as increased support for working mothers, should be steadily implemented over the long term — since visible results over the short term won’t be likely. The Abe administration’s bid for regional revitalization to halt the concentration of population and economic activities in the Tokyo area also must not end up as a half-hearted political fad. The government should start where it can — by taking more drastic steps for moving its own functions out of the capital.

But the government should also start preparing a blueprint for the nation’s future socioeconomic system for a shrinking population, including reforms of the social security and medical services. Some of the necessary reforms will be hard for the public to swallow, but that should not lead the government to evade the discussion and turn instead to promising targets without credible policies to achieve them.