Japan's Demographic
Photo by Freedom II Andres via Flickr

Underlying Japan’s placid, efficient and affluent surface are some hard realities that do not bode well for the nation in the long run. The economic crisis of the 1990s, combined with the relentless rise of China, has shaken Japan’s dominant economic position in Asia. The economy remains strong, relative to many; but Japan has the largest government debt in the world, and growth remains low.

But a factor that worries most Japanese is connected to economics, but is more fundamental still: The Japanese have one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The country’s population has already begun a decline from its 2008 peak of 128 million, and currently (2018) sits at roughly 126 million. Additionally, the Japanese population is aging rapidly, with the highest life expectancy rate in the world, at nearly 84 years.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb baby
Photo by tenaciousme via Flickr

Current estimates are that the population of Japan will continue to fall, plunging to 87 million by 2060, at which point the elderly (those 65 years and older) will comprise 40% of the population (it is currently 28%).

This is potentially catastrophic for a country built on the modern economic model, with its focus on perpetual growth and ever-growing consumption, each generation ultimately supporting the aging generation that came before it. But the Japanese seem at a loss as to what to do about it. The government has taken to offering cash payments for each child produced, but the payments would do nothing to defray the actual costs of raising a child.

Japan’s Demographic Debt
Photo by Richard West

Other schemes have been suggested, but the problem seems to be a matter of psychology as much as of economics. Shaken confidence after the so-called “Bubble Economy” burst in 1991, followed by decades of stagnant economic growth, have been blamed. The rising costs of starting a family have hindered the all-important family and household formation that power modern economies. And academic pressures on the young have dampened the enthusiasm of a whole generation to pursue careers.

But slowing population growth is a common issue in most of the developed world; Japan seems uniquely stymied. This impasse has come to be epitomized in the popular imagination by the distinctive problem of the hikikomori. Literally meaning “pulling inward,” the hikikomori are younger people (now up to 40 years old) who have dropped out of society and decided not to grow up. Avoiding jobs, homeownership, romantic relationships and raising children, the hikikomori stay with their parents through their twenties and even into their thirties, surfing the Internet in the safety of their childhood bedrooms, and otherwise refusing to engage with the adult world.

Rough estimates are that anywhere from a half million to one million hikikomori have withdrawn from society, which in a nation Japan’s size is a slow-moving disaster. Ask any Japanese, and many will have stories of friends’ children, or even their own, who are hikikomori, and who lack the basic skills to survive in the real world – especially once their parents die.

In addition to this, add the pressures of caring for the increasing numbers of the elderly, especially since the Japanese tend to live longer than people of other countries, and many of whom are barely scraping by financially. For a country of Japan’s social self-consciousness, and community-mindedness, the social safety net is relatively thin – and fraying. An ongoing problem is Japan’s enormous national debt, which, at roughly 236% of GDP, is the largest in the world, according to the IMF.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb Aging
Photo by hans-johnson via Flickr

This declining population is compounded by the increasing urbanization that is also common around the world, but especially acute in Japan. Tokyo has long been the largest conurbation in the world, at 35 million people, nearly a third of the Japanese population. In 1950, 53 percent of Japan’s population lived in urban areas; by 2014, 93 percent did. But the impact of this urbanization on Japan’s smaller cities and villages is profound, leaving only the elderly to do farm work in towns that younger people abandoned when they moved to the cities. Hundreds of municipalities in Japan are in the process of depopulating, becoming ghost towns.

Photo by halfrain via Flickr

Exacerbating all of this is Japan’s characteristically closed nature. One concrete way in which isolation continues to impact the country is in its resistance to immigration, one way that countries like The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom continue to grow. Nearly two-thirds of Japanese in a recent poll still resist the notion of allowing foreigners to become Japanese citizens. Even those whose families have been in Japan for generations – ethnic Koreans and Chinese – are set apart as different, not real Japanese. And if the Japanese aren’t making enough new “real” Japanese, then Japan’s fate is not just uncertain: It is dire.

Japan’s character has long been defined by its separateness, its uniqueness, and its self-conscious desire to hang on to its identity; it has done so with remarkable success. And the resourcefulness of the Japanese is undeniable: History teaches us to never underestimate what the Japanese can do when they put their collective effort into it. But the demographic drop is a challenge to match any the Japanese have faced before.

Without course corrections that could strike at the very heart of Japanese identity, the country is on the path to becoming a museum piece, and the elements of its culture, which so beguile the world, will become frozen in amber, beautiful but lifeless.

By David Watts Barton