“Population black hole” is one dire phrase among many used to describe the demographic dwindling of Japan. From its peak in 2008 of 128 million, the nation’s population has shrunk to just over 127 million. Last year alone, it fell 215,000.
The old live longer and the birth rate drops. Latest statistics show 33 million people 65 or over. That’s roughly one-quarter of the population, and more than twice the number of children 14 or younger.
It’s easy enough to paint this in black. Among those to do so was the Japan Policy Council, which last May warned that by 2040 the number of women of childbearing age (20-39) living outside the major cities would decline by half. Regional towns would shrivel, rural occupations and industries would die, schools and hospitals would close, public transportation would grind to a halt, infrastructure would crumble – and what then? What’s left of Japan’s youthful population would pour into Tokyo, Osaka, and a very few other urban conglomerates whose resources are strained as it is. The worst-case long-term scenario envisaged by the more pessimistic analysts is “the extinction of Japan.”
Look on the bright side, says Shukan Shincho (April 30). There actually might be one. Some obvious advantages of a thinning population immediately come to mind – less crowded facilities, a less frenetic, more relaxed pace of life. It’s a question of adjustment. Takahiko Furuta, president of the Research Institute for Contemporary Society, speaks of our current “growth society” evolving into a “mature society” – less growth, deeper enjoyments of the fruits of growth to date.
Nor would growth necessarily wither. Furuta cites toilet paper by way of homely example. Population shrinkage has already caused a noticeable drop in demand. Undaunted, producers vie with each other to make the softest brand, or the one most attractive in terms of design. Consumers are willing to pay higher prices in return for quality – at least when it comes to some items – and competition flourishes. What’s true in one sector will be equally true in others, if not in all.
Then there is housing. One-seventh of the houses in Japan are said to be vacant. It sounds disastrous, but is it? Sweden, Furuta tells Shukan Shincho, had a similar problem 30 years ago, and solved it with a concept known as “double housing.” Owning two homes – one in the city, another in the country – became standard as city-dwellers bought up vacant rural properties for a song. By now the old urban-rural distinction scarcely applies. Each individual is urban on weekdays, rural on weekends and holidays – part salaryman, part farmer. Might that happen in Japan too?
Population declines have occurred before, Furuta reminds us, without causing “extinction” or anything close to it. In 1718, Japan’s population was 30 million. Seventy years later, owing to a series of famines, it had fallen by 3 million. Famines are terrible, but this particular episode of depopulation coincided with a remarkable cultural flowering in which kabuki, ukiyoe art and introductory studies of Western science (the popular term was “Dutch studies”) flourished. So might the current depopulation generate cultural forms still unknown.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the business advocate group Keidanren have spoken of the need to keep the population above 100 million. Furuta wonders if they know where that 100 million figure originally comes from. It figured prominently, he explains, in the political rhetoric of World War Two. It was considered Japan’s ideal population given the national ambition to conquer Asia under the euphemism “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”© Japan Today