Japan’s accelerating depopulation has been making the headlines both internationally and domestically in Japan for many years now, and the reduction in population shows no sign of relenting.
Japan’s population has reduced for eight years in a row. In fact, in March this year (2018), some dramatic figures were published by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research that by 2030, population will be lower in every prefecture and that the total population of Japan by 2045 would be 106 million compared to a total population in 2015 of 127 million. That is a reduction of 20 million people in 30 years. The longevity of the Japanese people has created an aged population, which is accentuated by families having far fewer children. As a result, the population composition is becoming increasingly top-heavy.
I felt the effects of this at a local and very personal level this year when I went back to my home town, a very rural and small town about 2 hours north of Tokyo. The town was very much like a ghost town with very few children. I went back to my school which had long closed. It was a bit like a scene from The Walking Dead. My mother went to the same primary school back in the 1960s, and back then, each year contained around 120 children. When I went in the 1980s, there were 60 people in each year. Now, all the 8 or so primary schools in the district have been merged into a single site.
That’s pretty drastic.
But so what? In this overcrowded world what’s so wrong with a nation reducing its population over time? Toyo Keizai has a neat summary of some of the impact of depopulation. These include the obvious fact that the economy will begin to shrink as there is a reduced labor force. This is already apparent, as places which used to be open 24 hours a day, every day of the year – like convenience stores and eateries – are far fewer in number. With the aging population and declining economy, worker are becoming increasingly focused on “safety and stability”, rather than striving to achieve and grow as the enterprises of Japan’s economic history have. Labor and enterprise have contracted proportionally with population and economic decline. House prices have dropped relentlessly since the bubble, which means a lot of previous and current investments in land and property leave little to hand down to future generations. Prime Minister Abe’s “Abenomics” economic policy package has led to an increased number of properties being constructed, putting even more downward pressure on prices. With the declining population, it’s unclear as to who will occupy these other than overseas investors.
One obvious fix to the issue is increased immigration. But Prime Minister Abe has been reluctant to relax the rules on migrant workers coming into Japan. Although they have introduced a point system to allow foreign nationals to come into the country, Japan is still under pressure from the UN’s refugee agency to resettle more asylum seekers. In fact, Japan tightened its policy on immigrants’ right to work even further in mid-January this year, limiting the right to work to very tightly defined, bona-fide refugees. Of the nearly 20,000 asylum applicants in 2017, only 20 were accepted as asylum seekers.
Prime Minister Abe, in his ever bullish approach, has remarked that “the reducing population is in fact not a headwind but a tailwind…because it will encourage the use of robots and AI, in which it is known that Japan leads the world”.
I can see a real-life I, Robot type scenario in Japan before too long at this rate…