SINGAPORE – It may be obvious that, geopolitically speaking, a “vacuum zone” will inevitably be filled by outsiders. There is a not-so-funny joke that, if Japan’s current demographic trend continues, there will be only one person left in the nation in 2200 — who will serve as the emperor, the prime minister and the president of Toyota Motor Corp. That may not be plausible indeed. But if the population decline in Japan continues at the current pace, “vacuum zones” will likely emerge across the nation that, at some point in the future, could lead to a large-scale inflow of people from outside the country.
Speaking as a native of Japan who was raised in this country — and is now traveling around the world and occasionally returning home — it’s safe to say that people from abroad won’t fail to notice if parts of this beautiful country are left vacant. Many of the good things about Japan that Japanese take for granted, such as its clean air, pure water, seasonal beauty and fertile soil are not commonplace overseas. A lot of people abroad live in places where they can’t imagine enjoying those natural features.
These days, many of the inbound tourists to Japan are not satisfied with merely visiting Tokyo or Osaka but go on to travel to smaller cities in other regions of the country. In the first place, many people from overseas do not mind the inconveniences of living in natural environment in rural areas — they enjoy the “do it yourself ” lifestyle and spend time engaging in farming in those areas. They do not complain that rural areas lack the convenience of urban life. What would these people think if they see houses left vacant and farmland deserted in increasing numbers? They would most likely feel excited.
Unless there is a progress in medical technology fairly quickly that will result in an explosive increase in Japan’s population, it will likely be difficult for the nation to fill the vacuum zones throughout the country once again with people who have so far been defined as “Japanese.”
If this is the case, is the government going to invite more people from abroad to settle in this country in ways controlled by the state? Or shall we expect people from overseas to rush to this country in pursuit of its vacuum zones in manners uncontrolled — or not desired — by the government? The chances are high that the latter scenario will take shape.
Such a population inflow may take place when the aging population of Japan falls below 90 million, 60 million or 40 million. If a big disaster hits the nation at this time, further reducing its population and national wealth, the inflow from overseas may happen in ways that cannot be controlled by the state.
Attempts should be made to compensate for the aging and shrinking population with increased productivity by way of the social implementation of advanced technologies. But that is a different subject. There will be many people in Asia — where large numbers of its population live in a harsh natural environment — who will not miss Japan when its population has been reduced to 90 million, 60 million or 40 million.
The level of domestic law-enforcement capacity that Japan will have the means to maintain as its population ages and shrinks — including the Japan Coast Guard, the police and the Self-Defense Forces — will be an important issue to keep an eye on.
Many of Japan’s neighbors are well aware of its rapidly aging and shrinking population, and it seems likely that the nation’s population will start growing at some point in time — whether or not that takes place in ways that is desirable. That scenario should be kept in mind, even if only as food for thought.
Kotaro Tamura, a former Upper House member and parliamentary secretary in charge of economic and fiscal policy, is an Asia fellow at the Milken Institute and serves as an adjunct professor at National University of Singapore.