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Is Japan a dying nation?

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Robin Lustig | 12:39 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009

TOKYO-LONDON -- Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I'm writing this 31,000 feet above ground level, somewhere over Siberia, on the plane back from Tokyo in that limbo time zone where it seems to be neither day nor night.

And I'm pondering the meaning of Japan's population statistics, which make chilling reading for the newly-elected government after last Sunday's earthquake election.

Imagine a country that knows it is shrinking. A country that knows it is ageing more rapidly than any other major industrialised nation on earth. Which has the highest proportion in the world of people over the age of 65, and the lowest ratio of under 15s. That country is Japan.

As I reported on Wednesday, on current trends, the population of Japan will have halved by the end of the century.

It is, literally, a country that is slowly dying.

According to one United Nations estimate, it'll need to import 17 million foreign workers over the next 40 years, just to keep its economy afloat and provide enough carers to look after the elderly. (By 2050, there will be more than a million Japanese over the age of 100.)

I'm no social psychologist, so I wouldn't dare to come up with an explanation for why Japanese couples aren't having enough babies. But one theory is that Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry, because they think Japanese men have shown themselves unable to adapt to the needs of a new, more flexible society - and have retreated into a fantasy world of comics, video games and animated pornography where they feel less threatened.

The Japanese internet search engine Goo Japan reckons 70 per cent of Japanese men are still unmarried when they reach their 30th birthday. (Mind you, marriage rates in Italy, Norway, France and Ireland are even lower.)

So I found myself thinking at one point of the film "Children of Men", about what would happen in a world where all women are infertile and the human race is dying out. Not that Japan is descending into anarchy - quite the opposite, in fact. It is still the most orderly place I know, where no one is impatient at traffic lights, and even the hungry and homeless wait in long neat lines for their food hand-outs.

On the one hand, it is the nation of Toyota, Hitachi, Panasonic and Mitsubishi, global leaders and still very much a force to be reckoned with. On the other, it is the nation of manga comics and young women who dress up as French maids to pander to the fantasies of lonely men.

In the current economic climate, the newly-elected government will have no shortage of competing priorities. But it's already committed to increasing the children's allowance to £170 per child per month, in the hope that a cash incentive will encourage more Japanese couples to have more babies.

After all, what could be more important for the country's future?


  • 1. At 2:17pm on 05 Sep 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    It seems a little soon to write Japan's epitaph just yet. Japan has the second largest economy in the world. It is only dwarfed by the US itself. One explanation for Japan's ageing population is that its people are living longer, the result of success. On a crowded group of islands, a smaller population may be a blessing.

    It is ludicrous for economists to project decades into the future based on recent trends or current understanding. If projecting 41 years into the future to 2050 isn't nuts and 91 years into the future to 2100 doesn't seem impossible, then consider what economists would have said in 1909 given the world as it was then about how it would likely be in 1950 and 2000. Comparable projections would have been so far off from the way the world really developed as to seem like they'd come from another planet. There were and will be many critical factors which will be impossible to predict.

    Japan is a world leader in technology just behind the US and well ahead of Europe. It is especially capable and interested in the field of robotics. It may become more productive with fewer people leveraging its technological skills to great advantage.

    There are other countries where the long term trend of reduction of indigenous populations has far more ominous prospects, Italy and Russia are two nations that come to mind immediately.

    The United States' population continues to grow largely by immigration. This is one area where the US has an enormous advantage over other nations because unlike societies which define themselves by the majority ethnicity, American values which is how Americanism is defined and what it means to be an American has no correlation with ethnic origin. The anticipated 420 million Americans expected around 2042 should seem very much like Americans are today or at least what they would be if the population were not altered by the balance of ethnic origins even if their physical appearance is not the same.

    Expectations that China can continue to grow at its current rate indefinitely as economists often predict are equally ludicrous. China faces a plethora of problems that should start taking their toll on its economy in the next 10 years while India faces similar prospects.

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  • 2. At 9:55pm on 05 Sep 2009, JoeValleyboy wrote:

    Eighteen months ago whilst walking around central London with my wife and fifteen month old baby boy, we came across a group of Japanese women who descended upon us like the proverbial flies around a jam pot. They were interested in one thing only - looking at my son and photographing him. It soon dawned on us that these women were looking at something that was for them very unusual and out of the ordinary.
    Sadly Japan, for all its cleverness and ingenuity, seems doomed. No-one wants to go there to live, the language and culture are major barriers to any potential immigrant and they are not reproducing themselves. The country is now a goldfish bowl for the demographers to peer into and test the validity of their population predictions.

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  • 3. At 12:44pm on 06 Sep 2009, John_from_Hendon wrote:


    Let me draw you a picture: a 100 year mortgage on a very small, vastly overpriced, poor value home >> no space to have a family >> so the Japanese have been dissuaded to breed fast enough. Exactly the same mechanism is at work in the UK, but as luck will have it the UK has a ready, eager and willing mass of potential immigrants thanks to the pervasiveness of English. (This is something that the Japanese lack.)

    I don't know if this model/explanation is right, but it may suggest that the UK will always have potential immigrants to meet its population requirements whereas the Japanese my struggle - which I suppose supports your idea that Japan is dying.

    PS We can blame the banks (socially useless) in both Japan and the UK for the overpriced property and we, as a society have obviously badly regulated our banks (in both Japan and the UK) to have allowed this situation to occur! And badly educated our economists as they did not see the problem!

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  • 4. At 1:23pm on 06 Sep 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    It was only slightly over a year ago that President Obama said while running for president that Europe is facing a ticking demographic time bomb. Anyone remember that line? You can google it but I'm sure it's one a lot of people would like to forget. But it was true. Britan will evidently continue to accept immigrants, many of them illegal as will many of the more developed nations but will they ever learn to assimilate them? Probably not as their ethnic herititage is the way they define themselves and their nation. All immigrants in such societies are ultimately outsiders no matter how long or for how many generations they reside in a place. Germany is a prime example. The presence of what is very widely seen as an alien culture that is alienated from the mainstream and made to feel that way has already become a growing threat. France passed its no-hijab laws in public buildings for a reason. Italy is reputed to be the most racist society in Europe although the Romanians booed Madonna on stage in Bucharest when she lamented widespread discrimination against the Roma. It's a common theme throughout Europe. Old animosities, false national pride, unguarded borders, unfettered movement within the EU, and a cradle to grave welfare state that supports everyone with taxes, taxes, taxes killing jobs, jobs, jobs. It's as bad in Eastern Europe where citizens of Ukraine of Russian dissent refuese to even learn Ukranian. It's no better in Belgium. How long before the Moslems burn down France again or there's another 7-7 in Britain? It's just a matter of time. Talk about Japan Mr. Lustig seems to me to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. There may always be a Britain but will there always be Brits? Whether you know it or not Mr. Lustig, when you're looking at Japan, you're looking through the looking glass.

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  • 5. At 10:55am on 07 Sep 2009, Seraphim wrote:

    I don't think many studies stating "in 40 to 100 years it will be like this" ever was true - well maybe due to the pure amount of such studies and something called coincidance actually some must have been. If they were our oil reserves would be drained some years ago our cars would use some small versions of nuclear reactors for powering and capitalism would have failed for good. (oh well the last part may actually be not that wrong)

    As for immigration the UK and the US benefit a lot from as John mentioned the English language. Comparing it with Japanese it has at least two advantages:

    1. Many people in this world live in countries in which it is taught as the first foreign language if not as mother tongue.

    2. Even if 1. was not the case it is still considered to be relatively easy to learn something Japanese is not famous for.

    (Marcus you don't ever get bored of transforming every single topic - even one about Japan!! - into a "how superior the US are compared to Europe" one based on your experiences half a century ago and the latest horror stories from FOX news are you?)

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  • 6. At 3:33pm on 07 Sep 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    #5 Tiny (this septic has adopted the Cockney tactic of censorship avoidance through silliness);

    "Marcus you don't ever get bored of transforming every single topic - even one about Japan!! - into a "how superior the US are compared to Europe" one based on your experiences half a century ago"

    Actually I've been hearing more and more lately about America's empire that far eclipses the Roman and the British Empires of the past. But don't take my word for it, check out BBC's archives for their 6 part series "America, Age of Empire." Badly flawed, naive, and poorly executed, its central them actually makes sense. BTW, their prediction for as far into the future as they can peer.....nothing in that regard will change.

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  • 7. At 9:19pm on 08 Sep 2009, lordBeddGelert wrote:

    Robin, I don't pretend to have any huge insight into answering this question, but at the risk of repeating myself there are two excellent books which may help your analysis.

    Willing Slaves - How the overwork culture is ruling our lives. Author Madeleine Bunting.
    This really should be mandatory reading for those in the political arena.

    Affluenza - Oliver James - okay, the Japanese are not an 'English speaking nation' [and therefore not covered in the book] but some useful insights into the effects of the competitive world on family life etc.

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  • 8. At 9:22pm on 08 Sep 2009, lordBeddGelert wrote:

    p.s. Mr Lustig - In case you don't have time to read the above, I guess a useful summary might be that in an 'urban' environment you might be so, er, 'flagged' out [and I cleaned that up a bit..] to have the energy to put into anything else..

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  • 9. At 04:03am on 09 Sep 2009, expertsceptic wrote:

    Though worrying over Japan's demographic decline has become official policy in Japan, it seems overdrawn to me. Ministers began mentioning this looming problem in the mid-nineties when the economy was still robust. But Japan's economic recession has since then taken its toll on employment prospects for the younger generation. Up to a third of young people entering the economy have to face temporary employment prospects only instead of the customary steady permanent lifetime jobs of the past. The robust economy of the mid-nineties was so strong that ministers were under pressure from employers to admit massive immigration from the other parts of Asia which violates the desire of the government not to sacrifice the culture of the island nation by importing boatloads of non-Japanese. Because of the global recession even Brazilian-Japanese immigrants have been forced to return to Brazil because of the growing unemployment. So unanticipated events have led to a rethink in the government whether it is such a priority to stem the purported demographic decline of a decade ago. If anything it may be desirable for Japan to welcome a decline in population to match the decline in economic prospects for the future created by the rise of Chinese and Indian competitiveness.

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  • 10. At 6:02pm on 29 Sep 2009, muraoka98 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 11. At 8:46pm on 29 Sep 2009, Kitty-George wrote:

    Predicting the world after 40 years is nonsense.
    Do not worry. Mind your business.
    Japan has solved difficulties which westerners gave up such as rotary engine, hybrid car, etc one after another.
    There will be born advansed ASIMO and healthier Japanese old persons can cover the decreasing labour.
    There is good and bad in everything.
    As population decreases, the too expensive land price will go down.
    Then, the birth rate will bounce back like built-in-stabilizer.
    Some products keep being bought from only Japan, such as manufacturing equip, special iron material for skyscraper, carbon nanotube for Stealth, etc.
    There is USD1.5trillion savings in Japan and 3/4 owners of it, old persons will start spending for domestic demand.
    How abou UK?

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  • 12. At 8:52pm on 29 Sep 2009, Kitty-George wrote:

    Correction: Total of savings in Japan is USD15trillion.

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  • 13. At 2:08pm on 30 Sep 2009, tossup wrote:

    I'd think that for an island nation as small as japan with so few natural resources that a smaller population might benefit the country. Besides, at least this means that 'em WW2 veterans will finally die off and we might see a more harmonious situation in asi...ok fine so that part is still a bit far fetched.

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  • 14. At 9:26pm on 30 Sep 2009, Outlawcarl wrote:

    Is Manga The new Rap music that people will blame for anything? Anyway i really dont see this as much to worry about, Japan gets less people it will HAVE to bring in more immigrants and then Japan can become a more open society. Also Marcus really man you seen to place a lot of vaule in seeming vauless things my father was not british am i then some watered down brit? And what of national pride? you know what nation has a LOT of national pride and one of the most homogeneous thats right North Korea. Japan is facing this problem most likly beacuse of its disire to have a homogeneous nation, wont even comment on your 7-7 talk, now anyway am off to find a girl in a french maid dress to pander my lonely fantasies.

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  • 15. At 05:53am on 01 Oct 2009, mahouneko wrote:

    So let me get this straight. You take a small sample of the Japanese demographic and an even smaller sample of its culture to represent the entire of Japan. Brilliant.

    I guess this means that every Brit is represented by Mel Gibson's Braveheart and further elaborated by know-it-alls such as yourself.

    Get a grip. Just how hard is it for you to man up and admit that you don't know what you're talking?

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  • 16. At 09:32am on 02 Oct 2009, KyushuComfort wrote:

    #2 Good heavens. Congratulations on having a cute baby. However, there are babies in Japan as well. The only difference is that, as in most of Asia, people mostly like babies.

    And there are literally millions of people who are happy to come to Japan. Me for one. Life is good and we're doing what we can to keep the population up. Ultimately, if Japan needs the numbers, that can easily be accomplished with Chinese immigrants. In fact, it seems inevitable. While that will bring changes to the country, it's not such a vast gap as other immigrant groups bring elsewhere.

    One thing Japan could do is to decentralize a bit. There's great land available all over the country, some of it very cheap. But most of the jobs are in Tokyo.

    There's no doubt in my mind that Western Europe has far more worries in this regard than Japan. Still, Japanese love to worry, so they'll worry about this until something serious comes along to occupy them.

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  • 17. At 8:00pm on 02 Oct 2009, zomgletters wrote:

    Japan is merely the leader of a pack of advanced nations heading down the same road to cultural oblivion with birthrates well below replacement level.

    Years ago, moving out, getting married, pursuing a career, and starting a family were the conventional hallmarks of growing into adulthood, yet now the spirit of the day in so many countries appears to be the aspiration toward a sort of perpetual adolescence. People seem to want the individual freedoms that traditionally derived from adulthood without the accompanying responsibility.

    Why get married when I can hook up casually any time I want?

    Why waste my precious time changing diapers and feeding babies at 3am? They'll just get in the way of MY life, and, after all, I'll have the government to take care of me when I'm old.

    Why work too hard when it's virtually impossible for me to get fired, and the government takes 70% of my money anyway? In any case, children are now assured that self-esteem is unconditional, independent of accomplishment or merit.

    This sort of have-it-both-ways hedonism seems like a great thing, I guess, as long as you don't stop to wonder who will be around to look after you and your country when you're 80 in a self-absorbed society that has lost the will even to breed.

    For all the great social and technological advances of the age, I can't help thinking that something also has been lost along the way; that some fundamental connection with the real world--some basic instinct of living and survival--has been severed.

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  • 18. At 04:14am on 03 Oct 2009, nekoas wrote:

    as japanese and as 35 years old male,let me tell you.
    we had enough to be told "your generations are bad". And fed up with told "comic bad, video game bad".

    It is too stereotype view to tell about japanese population problem. if comics make nation dying, sope opera will make world dying, hahaha. you only see the surface and don't know the depth of culture. or real problem my generation have. Maybe you never understand.
    why you try to think only pop culture is especialy bad?

    "But one theory is that Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry, because they think Japanese men have shown themselves unable to adapt to the needs of a new"

    joking! do your realy belive this? women are right and men are wrong? marry is not only women decides, but both of men and women decide.

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  • 19. At 11:37am on 03 Oct 2009, Leo_Naphta wrote:

    I like how MA seems to transform every topic about Europe, and I specifically like how he uses the same 3 anecdotes to argue the point over, and over again.

    I also have a fun anecdote. A friend of mine recently immigrated to Europe, Antwerp specifically. He's coloured and, though Latin American, looks very Moroccan. Oh yes, he spent a couple of years in the US of A before coming here.

    Antwerp is notorious for having more 'racism' on average. He actually asked me about it. Specifically, he asked, why is it known for being so racist? Why ... ? Because compared to the day to day racism he experienced while living in the USA, Antwerp was nothing. So the reputation really baffled him.

    Of course, this doesn't prove anything, aside from the fact that I can use individual experiences to paint broad pictures of entire continents...

    I do like MA's "France hates Germany, and I know this because this one time at the University, this one French professor totally made fun of the German student, like the entire class!"

    Cracks me up every time.

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  • 20. At 3:34pm on 24 Oct 2009, ApratimMukherjee wrote:

    Japan needs to change the way it looks at the world.........it should allow foreigners to become their citizen.......it would be sad to see japan die..

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  • 21. At 09:45am on 12 Apr 2010, Pengie Jue wrote:

    i don't agree with you, though i am not japanese.

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