Japan: aging, shrinking, weakening. Is there a foothold on this slippery slope down? No, says journalist Masashi Kawai, writing in Shukan Shincho (Jan 19).
The magazine’s headline is “Dystopian Japan.” “Dystopian:” a bleak word for a harsh world. It suggests technology rampant, rule totalitarian, humanity submerged. The dystopia presented here is less extreme. Democracy survives, technology has not yet mastered us, humanity remains human. But the nation, if Kawai sees true, is doomed – to impotent stagnation if not ultimate extinction.
The demography, he says, is inescapable. It’s not only soaring life spans versus plunging birth rates. It’s the precipitous decline in the number of women of child-bearing age. They are the source – barring mass immigration, which he does not discuss – of potential renewal. The numbers themselves tell against it. 85.5 percent of births in 2021 were to women aged 25-39, of whom there are 9.43 million. In 25 years their number will be down to 7.1 million – the number of girls now aged 0-14. Suppose, optimistically, that the currently rising disinclination to marry and have children – owing to economic constraints, social acceptance of alternative lifestyles and psychological adaptation to both – reverses itself. Even so, a baby boom would hardly follow. Children, it seems, are an endangered species.
Japan’s depopulation is outpacing projections. Annual births had routinely been measured in millions – 2.09 million in 1973. Then came the “million shock” of 2016: 972,424. By 2030 it would dip below 800,000, the government-affiliated National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecast in 2017. That was alarming. Not alarming enough: 2022’s births were an estimated 773,000.
The millions born in the 1970s are aging, their parents dying. Their houses? Empty, many of them, abandoned and falling into ruin. 13.6 percent of Japanese houses – 8.489 million – are vacant, government figures show.
Irreversible depopulation demands two-pronged action, Kawai writes – short-term and long. Short-term measures include financial aid to families with or planning children, subsidized fertility treatment, subsidized daycare, subsidized education, workplace reform to accommodate working mothers, and so on. They are important but must not dominate the agenda, as Kawai says they do under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, charged here with neglecting the long-term necessity of preparing adaptation to the social disruptions inevitable in a nation aging more rapidly than any nation ever has.
What disruptions? They have long been visible in outline: the dying countryside, the waning economy, the draining of youthful energy from innovation, production, consumption and fun as the nursing care and medical needs of the elderly grow overwhelming. Covid-19 highlighted a related issue: the rising political influence of the numerically surging elderly.
Electoral calculus was not the only factor involved in measures that disrupted young lives to protect old. Vulnerability to viral rampage rises with age. Elderly lives were at stake. The fact remains, the restrictions on movement that helped protect the old stifled young lives for three crucial years. Jobs were lost, careers stalled, social life quashed. Marriages that might have occurred didn’t – 110,000 of them during Covid’s first two years, it has been calculated. How many children would those marriages have produced?
A modern nation sinks or swims on its economy. What are shrinking Japan’s economic prospects? Shrinking, says Kawai. The domestic market is contracting. The elderly consume less. Houses, cars, furniture and electronics are things we buy when young – hoping they will last us into old age, as they sometimes actually do, and when they don’t we often find we can live without them. The medicines and social services consumed by the elderly do not add up to a thriving domestic market. There are exports, of course, but Japan, Kawai notes, is more dependent on domestic sales than other developed nations. Japan’s exports in 2022 accounted for 12.7 percent of its gross domestic product – versus Germany’s 35.9 percent and Italy’s 26.3 percent.
A resource-poor country like Japan must innovate. Its postwar economic surge depended on it, encouraged it, throve on it. Innovation en masse demands youthful vigor. This is perhaps the most critical casualty of the longevity revolution. It’s not only youth’s declining numbers. It’s also the increasing precariousness of such jobs as there are in an economy turning ever more decisively away from secure full-time employment to part-time workers who know they may be dismissed at a moment’s notice for the slightest failure – or without it, for that matter. Constant fear of losing your livelihood does not feed innovative fire.
Rounding out the bleak picture are the closing down of local train lines grown uneconomical; crumbling roads, bridges, water pipes and sewage systems that local governments no longer have the tax base to maintain; aging and recruit-starved police forces; and the premature aging of such youth as there is as incentive and opportunity wither in an environment that no longer provides essential nourishment. Throughout history, Japanese and world, youth has been the rare precious natural resource that is naturally self-renewing. In Japan, it no longer is.© Japan Today