Editorials

Act on daunting demographic challenge

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.

According to the estimate, the population of Akita will be 41.2 percent less in 2045 than in 2015, while some other prefectures will face similarly steep declines, including Aomori (37 percent), Yamagata and Kochi (both 31.6 percent). The ongoing concentration of the population in large metropolitan areas will accelerate. Commenting on the estimate, Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake indicated that such a steep population decline may affect the very survival of his prefecture.

These declines will be accompanied by a higher ratio of senior citizens aged 65 or older in the population, which is forecast to reach 36.8 percent nationwide on average. The ratio will tend to be higher in the depopulated areas, with the figure hitting 50.1 percent in Akita, 46.8 percent in Aomori and 44.2 percent in Fukushima — and topping 40 percent in as many as 19 prefectures. Even in Tokyo, where the ratio of the elderly in the population will be the lowest at 30.7 percent, it is feared that a sharp increase in the number of senior citizens will strain the capacity of nursing care services and other welfare systems.

The picture is forecast to be even more darker at the municipality level. Nearly 95 percent of the nation’s some 1,700 cities, towns and villages will face declines in population. About 70 percent of them are predicted to see their population fall by at least 20 percent, and roughly 40 percent of the total will experience a drop of more than 40 percent. It’s estimated that the population of Kawakami village in Nara Prefecture will plummet to one-fifth of what it was in 2015, while that of Minamimaki, Nagano Prefecture, which had the highest ratio of elderly people in the 2015 census, is predicted to fall by more than 70 percent. The number of municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents will increase from 249 to 444 — or roughly a quarter of the total. Municipalities where a majority of the population will be 65 or older will surge from 15 in 2015 to 465 in 30 years.

Steep drops in local populations accompanied by declines in economic activity will reduce tax revenue for municipalities, which will make it harder for them to maintain their work forces and administrative services for residents. The population institute’s latest estimate serves as a reminder to the nation of the threat many municipalities face as their populations shrink.

Attempts have been made to reverse the demographic trend impacting municipalities and communities, and efforts have been made to consolidate small towns and villages into larger municipalities to maintain local administrative functions. But the situation will require more fundamental solutions, including redesigning the very form of local communities — and the municipalities that serve them — to adapt to the demographic reality based on population data and estimates. The institute’s estimate must serve as a catalyst for such endeavors.