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Since 2008, Japan’s population has been falling, and each year the amount it falls by grows larger and larger. In 2008, the country lost around 20,000 people. In 2010, 100,000, and by 2019, the figure stood at over half a million. The most recent data, released earlier this month, shows that in 2021, Japan lost more than 640,000 people.

This week on Deep Dive Japan Times staff writer Alex Martin joins to discuss Japan’s declining population, and why one town in Saitama thinks it’s not all bad news.

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Transcript

Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Oscar Boyd  00:09

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I’m Oscar Boyd. 

Since 2008, Japan’s population has been on the decline, and each year the amount it falls by grows larger and larger. In 2008, the country lost around 20,000 people. In 2010, 100,000. And by 2019, that figure stood at over half a million. The most recent data, released earlier this month, shows that in 2021 Japan lost more than 640,000 people. This week on Deep Dive, Japan Times staff writer Alex Martin joins us to discuss Japan’s declining population and why one town in Saitama thinks it’s not all bad news.

Oscar Boyd  00:58

Alex Martin, welcome back to Deep Dive. Thank you for joining me again.

Alex Martin  01:01

Thanks for having me, Oscar.

Oscar Boyd  01:02

Last week, annual statistics were released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications detailing Japan’s latest population data. And the headline figure is that Japan lost a record number of people: It lost 644,000 people between October 2020 and October 2021, which is a vast number of people. Could you break down the statistics for me?

Alex Martin  01:25

Sure. So as of October 1, last year, Japan’s population fell to approximately 125.5 million people, which is down by 644,000 from the year earlier. And that figure is roughly the same population as Kumamoto City or Okayama City, or the population of Luxembourg. This is the 11th consecutive year that the population fell, but this was a record number.

Oscar Boyd  01:49

And was this decline just due to the difference between the number of births and deaths in Japan? 

Alex Martin  01:54

Well, it’s definitely the most significant part of it. Deaths exceeded births by 609,000 in that time period. But there’s also the impact of the pandemic, and Japan’s closed borders and people not coming in. People leaving Japan exceeded the number of people moving to Japan by 35,000.

Oscar Boyd  02:11

Where is Japan experiencing this decline? Is it mostly in rural areas, or is it in the cities?

Alex Martin  02:16

It’s basically happening everywhere – even in Tokyo. But for the first time, on April 1 this year, more than half of the over 800 municipalities in Japan were designated by the government as either wholly or partially underpopulated. And, of Japan’s 47 prefectures, only Okinawa’s population grew. Prefectures that had seen population growth in recent years also saw their populations fall, including Chiba which is right next to Tokyo. Fukuoka, which is a big city, Kanagawa, which is near Yokohama and Kamakura — big cities — and even Saitama. We talked about this in the previous episode, but cities such as Osaka and Tokyo are also seeing population losses as people move to countryside areas. 

Oscar Boyd  02:19

And this trend of people moving back to the country is still not enough to reverse the rural decline?

Alex Martin  02:59

Basically, yes, because if you think about it, it’s the actual pie shrinking. It’s not certain portions of it, but the population of Japan.

Oscar Boyd  03:07

Before we continue talking about the country’s declining population, could we talk a bit about how Japan actually got to this point, how its population became as large as it did? 

Alex Martin  03:25

Right. So if we go back 200 years to the year 1800 — this is during the Edo period — Japan’s population was around 30 million back then. So 1/4 of what we have now. But when the Meiji Restoration came in 1868, and Japan began modernizing and industrializing, that’s when the population really began to expand much more rapidly. There was some slowdown during periods of war, especially World War Two, but by 1945, or the end of the Second World War, the population had more than doubled to 77 million.

Archival Clip – British Pathé   03:55

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVXq_T-9sEo] This is Tokyo 1948, vast, modern, thickly populated. How much do we know of Japan, whose economic and perhaps political life is bound up so closely with ours?

Alex Martin  04:06

Immediately after World War Two, the population exploded, similar to in other countries. So that was kind of the high point. But right into the middle of the 1970s, the population continued to grow rapidly.

Archival Clip  04:16

To understand Japan, we must understand her people. They, not the politicians, are building the new Nippon. 

Alex Martin  04:23

In 1974, the fertility rate dropped below 2.1. And that’s an important figure because a fertility rate of 2.1, or 2.1 children per woman, is what’s considered the replacement level. And as soon as you drop below 2.1, the rate at which the population increases starts to fall. And that’s what happened in 1974. And quite quickly, we start to see the rate of growth in Japan’s population start to fall. The population grew by around 1.2 million in 1975 but by 1985, 10 years later, that had fallen to below 700,000.

Oscar Boyd  04:59

So Japan’s population is still growing at this point, but the rate at which it’s growing is starting to decrease?

Alex Martin  05:05

That’s correct. 

Oscar Boyd  05:06

When did we see things actually start to turn around and start to decline?

Alex Martin  05:11

Well, the first year of negative natural change, which means more deaths than births, was actually 2005. But with the immigration, the population continued to increase until 2008. And that’s the year that the population of Japan peaked. 

Oscar Boyd  05:25

And it peaked at roughly 128 million, right? 

Alex Martin  05:27

That’s correct. And from there, we start to see the population go into decline. And this decline keeps getting bigger and bigger each year to where we are now, where Japan’s lost 644,000 people over the past year. And this is projected to continue at an even greater speed. The government estimates that the population will slide below 100 million in 2053 — that’s about 30 years from now — before falling to 88 million in 2065.

Oscar Boyd  05:53

How has Japan’s demographic makeup changed over the same period? And how is that reflected in the latest data?

Alex Martin  06:01

Well Japan’s famous for having the world’s oldest population, which also means that the population has been graying really fast. The data released recently showed that the proportion of people aged 15 to 64 — those considered working age — stood at a record low of 59.4% of the entire population. Meanwhile, those aged 65 or older were at a record high of 28.9% of the population. And people aged 14 or younger accounted for a record low of 11.8%.

Oscar Boyd  06:28

Okay, so the proportion of children in Japan’s population really is incredibly low. We’ve got an upside down population pyramid here. What’s contributed to the low birth rate in Japan?

Alex Martin  06:39

There are several factors involved. One is lower infant mortality rates: more children were surviving infancy, so people had fewer children. The other would be increased women’s participation in the workforce: women find it less and less attractive to have children as that derails them from their career or life opportunities. And also the expectation that women do more of the childbearing, that’s very strong in Japan, even now. 

Oscar Boyd  07:02

So women are looking at what’s expected of them if they want to have a career and what that would mean if they were to also have a family and finding that combination of pressures to be increasingly unattractive?

Alex Martin  07:13

Yeah, I think it’s an extreme burden for some people, or actually many. And then there’s the angle of expense. Instability after the Bubble popped meant that people didn’t feel financially secure. Japan has been in either a recession or deflationary situation for the past 30 years. Finally, prices are picking up now, but that doesn’t mean our wages are going up. But that’s a different story. And also there’s the issue of long working hours. Maybe not so much now, but Japan’s workers have been famous for their notoriously long working hours and commitment to their offices. So that means there’s little opportunity for family time, or even to meet people to have a family. And that also means a reduced rate of marriage. And it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. The lower the proportion of young people there are, the fewer people there are to actually have children.

Oscar Boyd  07:57

And this is reflected in the figure that you mentioned earlier that those aged 14 or younger now make up just 11.8% of the population. So if we fast forward 10 or 15 years to when some of them might want to start having children, even if all of them did, there will be far, far fewer young people to actually have children. 

Alex Martin  08:15

Right. So the pie is shrinking. 

Oscar Boyd  08:17

It’s really easy to talk about this decline in the abstract. 644,000 people sounds like a lot of people and as you said, it’s roughly the same size as Luxembourg. But what does it actually look like on the ground when Japan is experiencing such a huge population loss?

Alex Martin  08:34

Right, if any of us take a hike out in the mountains or in the countryside, I think we’ll notice a lot of the villages are quite empty, sort of ghost villages where you only see very old people walking around, and not that many young people nor kids. There are many abandoned homes — they’re called akiya in Japanese — and I think there’s maybe about 8 million of those in Japan, and the number is projected to grow to at least 20 million. And shattagai, basically these shopping promenades in Japan where they’re all shuttered because there’s not enough people to take over these businesses or actually work. 

When you look at the ecological or environmental aspect, the distance between human habitat and animal habitats is really closing up because of this, so you see a lot more bear encounters in Hokkaido, for example. In Chichibu, where I often go — this is the countryside in Saitama — I see deer everywhere. Deers, monkeys, they all come down. Wild boars — they feed off the local farmland. 

Oscar Boyd  09:29

Still no wolves, though?

Alex Martin  09:30

No wolves yet, hopefully soon. 

And then public transport. I think that’s one of the issues that we really need to deal with pretty soon. I think it was two weeks ago that JR West released expenses involved with about 30 rail lines that they operate in the countryside. And they were all in the red. I think they intentionally released this to stir up a debate in these municipalities because obviously they’re a business entity. If they can’t maintain these rail lines, what are they going to do? And they need to discuss this with local municipalities and villages and towns to figure out a way out.

Oscar Boyd  10:03

Right, and I guess this bleeds into other public services as well. If you look at hospitals and the number of available doctors or how many older people need those hospitals, it doesn’t balance with the local public finances when you’ve got a very small working population, but a high number of retirees and this graying population as you described it.

Alex Martin  10:23

Yes, and Japan’s healthcare system is very good, as you know, and it’s basically coming off of our tax money. There’s the issue of pensions, there’s the issue of health care, there’s the issue of fewer working people supporting the aging population. So if I reach 65, or 70, and my children reach a working age, I think the number of workers supporting me would be much lower compared to the current generation.

Oscar Boyd  10:50

You recently wrote a feature about depopulation for The Japan Times which was titled ‘For some shrinking towns in Japan, depopulation isn’t all bad news,’ which I definitely think is a more optimistic take on the declining population here. And for that article, you visited the town of Tokigawa, in Saitama Prefecture. Can you paint a picture of that town for us? What’s Tokigawa like when you get there?

Alex Martin  11:14

Well, first off, I took a train from Tokyo. I got off at a station called Ogawamachi, which is not a big town, but it’s on a major train line. And I rented a car and drove about 15 minutes to Tokigawa. Tokigawa does have a train station, but only one or two trains stop each hour. It’s more like a village, I guess. You don’t see any malls. You see maybe a few convenience stores, a supermarket. There’s a local clinic, and there’s a river running through it. It has the same name, Tokigawa, the Toki River. It’s a very idyllic, laidback rural landscape that you can see pretty much anywhere in Japan, I think.

Oscar Boyd  11:48

So what’s going on with its population? Is it following the same path as most other rural towns?

Alex Martin  11:53

Essentially yes, its population has been falling. But over the past few years, I think the rate of decline has been gradually slowing due to more people moving into Tokigawa from outside, like from Tokyo or elsewhere.

Oscar Boyd  12:05

And why have people been moving there? 

Alex Martin  12:07

First of all, the Tokigawa town office is apparently very lenient when it comes to new people living in their own community. I talked to a bunch of people who actually moved into Tokigawa. And they all say that compared to other towns or cities, Tokigawa’s bureaucracy is much more flexible in terms of accommodating their needs. So I think that’s one aspect. The other is that it’s relatively close to big cities. So I think the closest city to Tokigawa would be Kawagoe, which is a major city in Saitama Prefecture. It’s also pretty close to Tokyo, it took me about 70 minutes from Tokyo to Tokigawa. So if people were living there, and they needed to commute to a big city, they actually could. Even now, a lot more people are doing remote work, and that doesn’t really require you to be in any set location. However, you might want to see a client here and there just to say hi, or go out into the city to have some fun. Tokigawa provides that kind of distance. It’s doable. 

Oscar Boyd  13:02

So when you talk to people in Tokigawa, how do they feel about the depopulation of their village? And how are they perceiving this problem?

Alex Martin  13:08

So one person I talked to was nonfiction writer, Norio Koyama. And he launched a campaign about two years ago, under the banner tokainaka. ‘Tokai’ is ‘city’ and ‘inaka’ is ‘countryside.’ It’s a play on these two words. And basically, the concept is, places like Tokigawa, that are in relatively close proximity to big cities, have the advantage of luring people back into their communities, especially now, during the pandemic. Obviously, there needs to be a community and I think that’s the biggest aspect of what Japan needs to do in terms of attracting people to the countryside. They need to have a strong community that is accommodating to outsiders. And I think that’s what people living in Tokigawa are trying to do.

Oscar Boyd  13:48

How widely do you think the model of Tokigawa can be applied to the general situation in Japan? Is it just that they’re just particularly friendly, or they’re particularly well positioned near Tokyo, that allows them to have this stabilization of their population decline?

Alex Martin  14:03

Well, for this story, I only focused on Takigawa, but there are actually many municipalities out there that are trying different ways to attract people. Some are betting on startups, I think that’s the case with Fukuoka. Even in Yamagata, it’s similar. In Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture — that’s where my mom comes from, by the way — they’ve developed a sort of hub for startups, and they’re offering subsidized homes and offices. And that’s one way to do it. I think there are many different communities trying out different ways to attract people and retain people, and at the same time trying to promote their local attractions. But I think the big debate that we need to think about is that population decline is inevitable in Japan. So the point is not to increase your town’s population. One person I was talking to in Tokigawa said that that’s not the point because, if we see a population increase, that means we’re draining other communities’ populations, and that’s not good for them. So the point is to downsize in a sustainable manner, that’s helping out everybody in the community without pushing people out. And I think that’s the concept that not just Tokigawa, but all the other communities in Japan need to embrace, looking ahead. And I think that’s the most healthy way to go about it.

Oscar Boyd  15:07

Downsizing sustainably, working out what can be cut, where things can be centralized so that there is still access to things like medical care and the shops that you need.

Alex Martin  15:16

Sure, sure. I mean, for the longest time, you know, I think success was measured by GDP and population growth has a direct impact on GDP. For example, what’s that country Bhutan? 

Oscar Boyd  15:27

Gross Happiness Index.

Alex Martin  15:29

Right. So humanity in general, especially in a lot of developed countries, needs to take on a different philosophy in terms of what is happiness, what is wellbeing, what is community. Things like that.

Oscar Boyd  15:40

I guess more generally, one positive you could draw from the example of Tokigawa is that they’ve perhaps been forced to innovate slightly or forced to reconsider how to let new people move there. As you said, the bureaucracy is relatively streamlined compared to other towns. But more generally, do you see potential positives to Japan’s declining population?

Alex Martin  16:00

I think every country has a number that would balance out their resources and needs. And I’m not sure whether 125 million people — that’s our current population in Japan — is the most desirable figure. Obviously, the infrastructure that Japan developed over the years is made to entertain and maintain this population. But I mean, you know, looking back at 1800, it was 30 million, right? It was a different world back then, obviously, we didn’t have airplanes or all this technology, but I think we need to ask ourselves, what’s the right balance in terms of population, nature, space, infrastructure and everything involved? I get the feeling that there are just too many people around. I mean, this is my personal take, I’m not an academic or anything. So I think, to a certain extent, the population falling could be beneficial. But then again, there’s the economical aspect of that, and the aging population means there’s less workers. So how to address that?

Oscar Boyd  17:03

Earlier you said that the government estimates that Japan’s population will fall below 100 million in 2053, and then reach 88 million in 2065. What’s being done at the government level to try and turn the tide? Or is there just a sense that, as you said, this population decline in Japan is inevitable?

Alex Martin  17:23

Well, one thing is fertility treatment. It’s really expensive in Japan, perhaps it is in other countries as well. But starting April, public health insurance will reimburse 70% of the cost of advanced fertility treatments as part of the government’s attempt to halt the decline. So maybe that could boost the birth rate somewhat. We’ll see how that goes. Tokyo also has a plan to pay couples ¥100,000 yen per baby that they have. It’s not too much but it will help, I guess. And then matchmaking, I guess that’s a big thing. Especially during the pandemic, when people are not going out — college students are banned from doing these extracurricular  activities — the main issue that came up was people just not meeting people. So dating apps are really flourishing now. And you know, I’ve never tried one myself, unfortunately, but I do have friends who got married through these dating apps. So perhaps there is a way out in that sense.

Oscar Boyd  18:14

I don’t want to minimize the IVF subsidies because they sound like they could actually be incredibly beneficial to people who need that treatment. But otherwise, those solutions feel a little bit like sticking plasters, especially when we’ve been talking about how overly long working hours, or the expense of having children, or expectations of women to juggle housework and a career have all contributed to a lower birth rate here. If the country can’t actually improve its birth rates, what are some of the other ways it might be able to address its declining population?

Alex Martin  18:43

Well, I think the most straightforward way to boost population would be immigration. However, Japan has been very averse to the prospect for a long time. And personally, I don’t see the country opening up to a lot of immigrants in the near future. Under Abe, there’s been a trainee scheme that’s been launched. But this has also been controversial in many ways. And especially during the pandemic Japan has had strict border controls, people not coming in, actually more people going out. So in terms of the atmosphere or the environment to accept immigrants, I don’t see Japan as being very opportunistic at this point.

Oscar Boyd  19:19

Do you think that might change going forward as they come to grapple with a declining workforce?

Alex Martin  19:23

Living here for 35 years, I don’t see Japan accepting a huge number of immigrants. Not to say that they won’t, but I cannot envision many towns in Japan being populated by immigrants in the near future. So maybe the answer is technology. You see a lot of unmanned convenience stores opening up. For old workers there are these little robots that you can stick on your thighs to help you move around. And a lot of the factory work and stuff like that is being streamlined by robots. So perhaps — this is sort of like a sci-fi future — a lot of these tasks could be overtaken by machines and AI. But then, for example, the Hokkaido bears, right? How are people supposed to stop that through automation? You can’t make robots to go out and hunt these animals. I mean, I guess you could, but it’s gonna take 50 years from now, and in the meantime you’d need real hunters and people to protect farming land. And you know, even with trees, the number of forestry workers in Japan has been declining for a long time. And it’s really seeking and needing young blood. So it’s not just city living, it’s everything combined: the natural resources, the rivers. There are so many dams in Japan that require maintenance checks all year round. And I don’t know if robotics and AI and technology can actually cover all that.

Oscar Boyd  20:43

So what does Japan do then? If it is inevitable that Japan in 50 years time is going to have 30 million or 40 million fewer people, how do you maintain that infrastructure? How do you keep that going? Or is it just a case of letting it be reclaimed by nature?

Alex Martin  20:59

Well, one popular idea that’s been tossed around for a long time is to consolidate populations to certain towns or cities. The issue right now is that there are many genkai shūraku, or rural towns, that are about to disintegrate. And there might be three or four households of 70 or 80 year old men and women living there. Obviously, they don’t want to leave their houses, they’ve been living there for centuries, perhaps their ancestors came from the same area. Convincing them of the merits of moving into a more populated area is very difficult, I think. But that’s something that’s inevitable, perhaps, if the population is shrinking. Not asking them to move into the cities, but perhaps to a neighboring larger community where there is a functioning transportation network and a hospital. And I think this kind of consolidation, if it happens all across the nation, then perhaps that’s a way to go about maintaining well being and health care, and all those things that we need among these populations. Don’t lose the rural countryside, but try to maintain it while keeping communities intact by trying to pull other people into the regional sphere. That would be perhaps the most logical way to go about it, I think.

Oscar Boyd  22:12

Might one solution to the problem of a declining workforce actually be to reimagine and potentially redeploy the elderly population here in some way. Not by forcing them to work if they don’t want to, but perhaps to fill more volunteer roles? Because when you look at Japan’s elderly population, many of them are still incredibly energetic, incredibly mobile. When I go into the mountains, I’m mainly joined by sprightly 70 year olds who manage to keep up and then overtake me. So rather than sidelining them after retirement, could they take on more active community roles, for example?

Alex Martin  22:46

Sure. And I think that’s what Japanese politicians have been really pushing for: to raise the age limit of people working. And they’ve been employing a lot of policies directed towards that. And there’s a huge potential there. At the same time, I don’t think we should be pushing these older people to work at jobs that they’re not really interested in. So it’s difficult to strike a balance. But if there are people who have special knowledge, or some kind of skill that is useful, and there are people who want to work way past their retirement age, that’s definitely something that Japan should be pushing for. And if you go to the countryside, even still, if you look at farming villages, you see obachan and ojichan in their 90s that are still working. For them, it’s not a matter of retirement age. It’s about their life, right. And it’s a natural thing for them to be working that way. I think it’s a very city-urban urban idea that we work after graduating college or from high school till 65, and then we call it quits, right? I think it’s a concept that capitalism and our society ingrains into us. But if you look at it from a different perspective, and if you look at your life, let’s say I’m living till 80 or 90. Think about the opportunities. I think there’s maybe many more creative ways to employ that manpower and skill set.

Oscar Boyd  23:58

Japan is probably 10 or 20 years ahead of many other developed countries when it comes to depopulation. But certainly when you look at the populations of other developed countries, there are an increasing number which are reaching that peak, the top of the curve, starting to decline or are about to decline. If you look at Italy, South Korea, China, they are all populations that are expected to decline and follow a similar path to Japan. Are there opportunities here for Japan to lead as it becomes the first country to really grapple with a declining population and set the blueprint for how to deal with the declining population in a sustainable way?

Alex Martin  24:35

Definitely, definitely. And I think that’s what Japan is trying to do. As you say we’re really far ahead in terms of the demographic situation here. So you know, whether that be technology, robotics, AI, that kind of field, or welfare-oriented ways to maneuver through this. I think whatever Japan does will be meaningful from the perspective of these countries that you mentioned. Perhaps even something like Tokigawa, if they can export that idea to other shrinking nations, I think that could be more like a cultural export perhaps.

Oscar Boyd  25:08

Alex, thank you very much. 

Alex Martin  25:11

Thank you

Oscar Boyd  25:18

That was Alex Martin, and I’ve put a link to his article about Tokigawa and its efforts to combat depopulation in the show notes. 

Also in The Japan Times this week: On Tuesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled a new package of economic measures worth about ¥6.2 trillion to try to reduce the impact of rising commodity prices. As part of the stimulus package, the government will spend ¥1.5 trillion to expand subsidies for oil wholesalers and ¥1.3 trillion to support low-income households, with a ¥50,000 per child handout to all those who qualify. That story and all the latest news from Japan at japantimes.co.jp. 

That’s it for this week’s episode. We will be off next week for Golden Week, so there’ll be no new episode then. I hope all of you listening in Japan get some time off to enjoy yourselves. For those of you listening from overseas wondering what a Golden Week is and where you can get one for yourself, I’d recommend reading Russell Thomas’ article about the history of Golden Week from a couple of years back. That article is linked in the show notes. Until next time, thank you for listening, and as always, podtsukaresama.