Yesterday, Japan released the data from its 2015 census. It indicated that Japan’s population has declined by 947,000, or 0.7%, since the census was last taken in 2010. With a population of of 127.1 million, Japan is still the world’s 10th largest country in terms of population. But that is set to change. Although this was the first time that the census has registered a fall in population, demographers were already in agreement that growth was about to turn negative. So why is Japan’s population falling? And how will this negative population growth affect Japan?
There are two primary reasons for Japan’s declining population. One is a falling birth rate and the other is a lack of immigration. The simple truth is that Japanese families are not having as many babies as in the past, and too few people are coming into the country to make up the difference. The result is that people are dying more quickly than they can be replaced by new people.
Japan’s falling birth rate is no surprise to demographers. One of the most common demographic trends is that population growth begins to slow considerably as a country develops, and Japan is certainly a very well-developed country. There are a few reasons for this. One is that the economies of undeveloped countries are often dominated by the agricultural sector, and many people need to grow their own food to survive. As a result, families will have more children to increase their agricultural productivity. Another reason is that in less developed countries, access to birth control is very limited, so couples do not have the power to decide when they want to have children.
In Japan and other developed countries, on the other hand, the economic situation favors fewer children. It is not necessary to have many, as the economy is not dominated by agriculture. Also, the cost of raising a child is high in developed countries, leading many to choose to have fewer children. They are able to do so because access to birth control is widespread and sex education is common. In fact, education of women is an important contributor to lower birth rates. Education empowers women, and as a result many can choose when to have children. They often choose to have fewer children later due to the demands of their careers. The combined result of all of these factors is that people are simply having fewer children.
In the United States and Europe, immigration largely compensates for falling birth rates. With the United States very close to Latin America and Europe very close to North Africa and the Middle East, a constant flow of economic migrants and refugees replenishes the population. Japan, on the other hand, is not located very close to any source of immigrants. Also, Japan’s homogenous culture can be a daunting prospect to migrants. Many European countries have cultural ties to their former colonies and large immigrant communities. Japan does not share these characteristics, and as a result it is not a popular destination for permanent immigrants.
All of these reasons for Japan’s population decline are long term trends, and consequently one should not expect the country to return to growth. In fact, according to projections by the Japanese government, its population is expected to fall below 100 million in 2048 and continue to fall towards 80 million by 2100. These population trends will have huge negative effects on Japan’s economy. As the population declines, it also ages. More than 40% of the population is expected to be over the age of 65 by 2060. The cost of caring for these older citizens will be immense, putting enormous strain on Japan’s citizens and welfare system. This is especially true considering that fewer young people will be available to fund and care for these older citizens.
The shrinking workforce will also have negative effects beyond the difficulty of caring for retired citizens. If there are less workers, there will be less taxpayers. This is especially concerning considering Japan is the world’s most indebted country–its debt is equal to 230% of its GDP. And although its GDP is the 3rd largest in the world, that is set to change. Every economy is dependent on consumers and workers. If there are fewer consumers, there will be less consumption, less demand for goods, and consequently less economic output. If there are fewer workers, there will be less productivity and consequently less economic output .
Thus Japan is on a path to almost guaranteed economic contraction. And with fewer people paying taxes and more people dependent on them, a smaller economy is not good news for Japan’s government or its people. But there are some solutions. The negative effects of this demographic crisis certainly cannot be avoided, but they can be minimized. One way to do so is to encourage immigration in large numbers. Assimilating immigrants would be a very difficult task, as one of the world’s most homogenous countries would be forced to accept the children of immigrants as Japanese–and perhaps redefine what it means to be Japanese in the process. But doing so may be necessary. Another way that Japan can address its population crisis is to make it easier to manage both children and a career at the same time. This would prevent some people from choosing not to have children because of their careers. It would also allow more women to work–most Japanese women stay at home to raise their children–thus bolstering Japan’s shrinking workforce.
The release of new census data confirms a trend that has long been expected. In a way, the fall in population is an official beginning to Japan’s long journey of decline. But Japan is an exceptional country. From its post-war economic miracle to its reputation as one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, Japan has shown itself to be capable of amazing things. Perhaps it will be able to avoid the worst of its population crisis. But perhaps not. Either way, Japan is about to face a challenge that will be instrumental in determining its future.