By 2040, the country’s population is expected to shrink by 20 million people, a catastrophic 16% decline. Small towns and rural areas are already hollowed out, but now big cities are also facing a demographic time bomb. How did the world’s third largest economy get into this mess? And is there anything left to be done to turn Japan’s population fortunes around?
The Inexorable March of Demographic Decline
It started in 2011 – the year Japan’s population peaked at 128 million. Birth rates had already been falling for decades, but deaths finally overtook births that year. Since then, Japan has been on a downward spiral, losing half a million people a year. Rural areas have been hit hardest. But now urban areas are also shrinking as young people avoid getting married and having kids.
Japan has the world’s longest life expectancy at 84 years, and over 28% of the population is already over 65. Meanwhile, the birth rate has plunged to just 1.4 children per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. At this rate, projections show Japan’s population falling to 107 million by 2040 – a catastrophic decline of 16% in just 20 years.
Some northern prefectures could see their populations halve in the next few decades. By 2040, over 35% of Japanese will be senior citizens, placing an impossible burden on the working-age population. “We are looking at demographic collapse on an unprecedented scale,” warns Professor Satoru Nakamura of Tokyo University.
The Economic Perils of a Shrinking Population
A declining, aging population spells economic stagnation. Japan is already creaking under the world’s highest public debt at 266% of GDP. With fewer workers paying taxes and more retirees receiving pensions, Japan’s social security system faces bankruptcy.
Growth has stagnated, and Japan’s days as an export powerhouse are ending as companies struggle to find workers. The health system is also overwhelmed with the demands of the elderly, leading to chronic hospital bed shortages.
With demand weakening, deflation has set in, plunging Japan into a spiral of falling prices and consumption. Successive governments have tried endless stimulus packages, but Japan remains stuck in permanent recession.
The Crisis Spreads to the Cities
As rural areas empty out, Tokyo has remained an oasis of growth and youth, attracting young people with its universities, jobs and glamour. But even Tokyo’s population is now shrinking as fewer people migrate to the capital. Japan’s second-biggest city, Osaka, is also now declining as deaths outnumber births.
The same pattern is repeating across the country – a demographic timebomb is now exploding in the cities too. Japan is becoming a “geography of nowhere”, in the words of Professor Nakamura, with no areas left untouched by rapid aging and population decline.
Why is Japan Aging so Rapidly?
With one of the world’s lowest birth rates at just 1.4 children per woman, Japan has aged faster than any country in history. Already, 28% of Japanese are over 65, the highest proportion in the world. This will rise to 38% by 2060 according to the latest projections.
The causes are complex, but boils down to the high costs and sacrifices required to raise children in modern Japan. Overwork, lack of childcare, cramped housing, strict social expectations and career disruption make having children unattractive for many couples.
Young people are also increasingly avoiding marriage and relationships, often crippled by work pressures or simply unable to cope with the demands of family life. By 2040, it is projected 40% of Japanese adults will never marry.
Is Immigration an Answer to the Crisis?
Faced with rapid aging and shrinking population, Japan has reluctantly opened its doors slightly wider to immigration. Robots and automation are also being touted as solutions. However, immigration remains extremely limited despite government efforts to attract more foreign workers.
Barriers include tight restrictions on foreign residents obtaining citizenship or permanent residency. Prejudice and discrimination in society and the workplace remain common too. Immigration alone is unlikely to plug the enormous gaps opening up in the workforce as Japanese age.
2030s: The Last Chance to Reverse Course
Experts describe the coming decade as Japan’s last chance to restore birth rates and regain demographic dynamism. If current low fertility rates do not improve substantially by the 2030s, Japan’s population will be too old and small to recover.
However, top-down campaigns by the government have so far failed to make a dent in birth rates. Social change led by young people themselves may be the only hope, but will require challenging deep-rooted traditions around family and gender roles.
As the 2030s approach, Japan is accelerating towards a demographic cliff edge with no easy solutions in sight. After decades of warnings, the crisis is now upon us. Reversing birth rate declines remains an epic challenge with no precedent in human history.
Time is fast running out for Japan to restore demographic balance and avoid social and economic collapse. The 2020s may be modern Japan’s ultimate moment of truth.
Is Japan’s Population Going To 0?
Japan faces a demographic crisis of unprecedented scale that will challenge the very foundations of its society and economy. Halting birth rate declines before the 2030s is critical to avoid terminal social and economic decline. However, top-down government policies have so far failed and bottom-up social change remains weak.
With the clock ticking down rapidly as Japan ages, reversing deep-rooted declines in marriage and childbirth remains an epic challenge with no clear solution. Japan now faces a race against time to avoid demographic disaster in the coming decades. Averting collapse will require urgent action and fundamental social change on a scale never before seen in Japan’s long history. The 2020s will decide Japan’s fate.
Japan faces a severe population crisis caused by rapid aging and birth rate decline. This threatens economic stagnation and social collapse unless urgent action is taken. However, top-down government policies have failed so far to reverse the long-term trend. With the clock ticking down to the 2030s, Japan faces a race against time to restore birth rates and avoid demographic disaster. Fundamental social change led by young people themselves may be the only hope left, but this represents an epic challenge for Japan. The 2020s are the last chance to reverse course before Japan passes a demographic point of no return. Time is fast running out to avoid economic and social catastrophe.