The population forecast through 2045, released last week by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, paints a stark demographic challenge for many of Japan's municipalities, which may become literally unsustainable in coming decades due to sharply declining local populations. It's estimated that the nation's population will fall by 16 percent in 2045 from the 2015 level. Tokyo will be the sole exception among the 47 prefectures to escape a net decline, while it's forecast that the population of prefectures such as Akita, Aomori, Yamagata and Kochi will drop by 30 to 40 percent. About 40 percent of cities, towns and villages throughout the country are expected to see their populations fall by more than 40 percent.

It seems clear that all of those municipalities will not be able to continue as local self-governing bodies. How they should be reorganized — and how their administrative functions and services for residents can be maintained, consolidated or streamlined — must be explored, and discussions should begin now since the agenda will require long-term efforts. The nation's response to the problem of depopulated municipalities and regional communities will test its ability to maintain a vibrant society and economy under daunting demographic pressures.

The pace of Japan's population decline and aging in the latest forecast has in fact slowed from the government think tank's previous estimate five years ago due to a slight pickup in the fertility rate in recent years. However, the overall downward trend remains unchanged. The institute, which last year forecast that the nation's population will decline to 88 million in 2065 based on the national census and other data, said the population will fall by 20 million between 2015 and 2045 to 106.4 million. Of the 47 prefectures, the populations of Tokyo and Okinawa alone are forecast to continue growing after 2020, but they too will start declining in the early 2030s.