🔖 8 min read

On the heels of some of the most exciting, bizarre, and beautiful trips we had together at Japan Nakama, our next voyage may be filled with mixed feelings.

As we never like to begin on a sour note, it’s fair to say Japan’s shrinking population is a tragic concern as experts label this crisis a “demographic disaster”.

A combination of low births and ageing communities is causing Japan’s population to shrink at a record-breaking pace, leaving little optimism for future generations for economic security.

Although the Japanese government has been at the forefront of efforts to address this situation over the last several decades, Japan’s shrinking population leaves government officials lost in terms of a viable solution.

Let’s take a closer look at what Japan has done, why it hasn’t worked, and what the future holds for the country we all love and admire.

The Tale of Ayano Tsukimi

Let’s begin by introducing an extraordinary lady with whom some of us may be familiar. The tale of Ayano Tsukimi sets the tone for what demographic experts believe to be a nationwide crisis in Japan.

Ayano is a Japanese woman from Nagoro, located in Tokushima Prefecture, and her story began in 2003.

Ms Ayano Tsukimi gathers amoungst her dolls
Ms Ayano Tsukimi gathers amoungst her dolls

To commemorate her father’s passing, Ayano made a doll in his likeness and then dressed it using his clothes. Locals would pass and see Ayano’s doll sitting in the garden and say “Good Morning” as if her father had never left.

This joy of community sparked an idea for Ayano to re-create locals who passed away through her hand-knitted life-like dolls, using wood sticks, newspapers, stretchy textiles, and knitted wool to resemble skin and hair.

Ayano’s dolls can be seen throughout Nagoro, waiting at bus stops, in front of local stores (mostly now abandoned), and even cultivating among the village’s crops.

Nagoro students gather for class
Nagoro students gather for class

Visitors passing through Nagoro can witness the efforts of this re-created community, previously prospering with life as the streets, once occupied by local children, still echo playful memories.

As a child, Ayano remembers her home as a vibrant village with local construction and forestry supporting Nagoro’s rural community. However, due to ageing residents passing on and young locals leaving for University and career opportunities, Nagoro’s settlement has dramatically faded.

As of 2022, Nagoro’s youngest resident is 58 years old.

Over time, Ayano’s hometown has been well-documented and has now gained global recognition, but in what way? 

Although fascinating and undoubtedly different, Nagoro serves as a brutal reminder of the dangerous road Japan continues to encounter. Unfortunately, rural settlements such as Nagoro feel the harshest impacts as the nation still struggles with its ever-present shrinking population.

Japan’s Shrinking Population

Japan’s working population today stands at 59.4% of the country’s overall, a record low.

According to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the country’s population may fall below 100 million by 2049. Yasushi Kaneko, Japan’s Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, stated the reduction was the highest since equivalent statistics began in 1950.

Eldery residents enjoying the outdoors
Eldery residents enjoying the outdoors

In 2021, Japan’s population was slightly over 125.5 million, reflecting a decline of 644,000 individuals, which was the most recorded. In addition, last year saw 831,000 births which fell short of the country’s 1.44 million deaths within the same year. 

Why does Japan have fewer Babies?   

Pinpointing the precise cause of Japan’s demographic problem is challenging as modern times create more barriers for young people globally, not just in Japan. 

However, the low birthrate in Japan is linked to the fact that many young Japanese people have consciously chosen not to start families.

On average, the typical Japanese woman gives birth to less than two children yearly. As a result, Japan’s population under 14 years old fell to an all-time low of 11.8%, while the portion of 65 and over rose historically to 28.9 %.

Japan’s economic future also plays a part due to the financial burden new parents face moving forward. Ironically, Japan producing few babies will directly impact the nation’s economy, allowing the younger generations to view their futures as dismal and uncertain. 

Despite the governments best efforts, birth rates continue to decline in Japan

Another leading element points toward the country’s excessive work rate. Due to long working hours, men and women find it almost impossible to pursue an intimate relationship while coping with career demands. 

In addition, many Japanese women are forced to take on parenting alone since their spouses are often away for extended periods.

Why did Japan Fail to Handle its Crisis?

Japan’s demographic issue has been at the forefront of government debates for decades, as the nation’s economic future almost certainly will suffer. As a result, numerous attempts have been undertaken to save the country’s thriving economy.

Because Japan needed to modernise its societal ideas and beliefs, modern improvements were made based on revitalising the Japanese economy. However, the country struggled to shake off its rigid labour ethics of the old-school mentality and adapt to modern ideals.

Abe’s Womenomics

Upon his second term in office, the late Shinzo Abe (1954 – 2022)  aimed to address Japan’s ageing population and low birth rates by introducing more women into the workforce, hence maintaining the country’s prosperous economy. 

It was thought that “womenomics,” a new term established in Japan, would help bridge the gender equality gap since the nation performs low in terms of employment, politics, health, and educational attainment for women.

As of 2020, 53% of Japanese women participate in the labour workforce

Womenomics was viewed as an inavative way to revitalise Japan's economic power
Womenomics was viewed as an inavative way to revitalise Japan's economic power

“Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work… is no longer a matter of choice for Japan. It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency”  –  Shinzo Abe.

The strategy put up by Shinzo Abe was praised for its originality and intelligence, but it turned out to be more complex than expected.

Unfortunately, many Japanese women who aspired to have successful careers and decent family lives were exposed to stress and discrimination at work.

Matahara (マタハラ)

Maternity harassment or “matahara” in Japan has acquired public attention in recent years, adding to the nation’s already existing social problem of gender inequality. In addition, Japan’s inability to provide adequate parental care has made it difficult for many Japanese women to juggle careers while establishing a family.

In 2018, Japan ranked 110th out of 149 nations for gender equality. 

As pregnancy within the workplace became a nationwide issue, many Japanese women have been forced to abandon their positions due to pressure from employers and workplace superiors.  

This study conducted between 2014 and 2017 reveals the critical causes of women leaving the workforce in Japan.

The mistreatment of pregnant women within the workplace is illegal. For example, the Japanese Labor Standards Act clearly states that if a pregnant woman asks for lighter workloads or the appropriate time off, her boss must oblige. 

However, for many corporate companies in Japan, it is not as straightforward for female employees to receive such conditions. Over the years, several examples have been made public regarding maternity harassment. 

The Tale of Yūka Ogata 

The most famous incident occurred in 2017 during a city assembly when Yūka Ogata (緒方 夕佳), a Kumamoto local politician, had brought her baby into an assembly gathering due to a lack of childcare or other support services in place.

As a result, she was forced to leave the chambers as the council refused to open the session with a baby present. 

This was Yuka’s first day back to work after giving birth.

Did Japan's Government Exploit Women to Save its Economy?

Although Abe’s womenomics did increase the number of women in Japan’s male-dominated workforce, most positions came on a temporary or part-time basis, without the benefits of full-time employment like maternity leave and substantial welfare.

In addition, many Japanese companies are reluctant to invest in recruiting and developing female staff due to the inevitability of childbirth. 

To conclude, such realities leave little ground for Shinzo Abe’s womenomics to take full effect and achieve the long-term goals once believed to save the country’s economic future. As a result, having children is far too risky for female employees, especially in corporate, senior or full-time positions.

Does Japan’s Shrinking Population have a Future?

Tesla and SpaceX mogul Elon Musk expressed his concern via Twitter, stating, “Japan will eventually cease to exist”, as he responded to the nation’s record-breaking report on population decline.

Efforts to Survive moving Forward

As Japan’s demographic crisis continues, the government has been forced to delve into uncharted territory for answers. Two potential solutions lead the way for a better future – immigration and financial support. 

Financial aid has become essential to encourage young Japanese couples to marry and start families. 

According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, more than 40% of unmarried Japanese people in their early 20s and 30s say that money is the most significant barrier to getting married.

As a result, government supports have been introduced to encourage young couples to have children and start families, like early childcare allowances, medical fees and education subsidies. 

Large portions of goverment funding has been emphasised on encouraging young couples to get married and start family's
Large portions of goverment funding has been emphasised on encouraging young couples to get married and start family's

In addition, the Japanese government introduced a regional allowance plan in 2018, which meant couples under the age of 34 are eligible for financial assistance in starting a new life together. 

A government subsidy of up to 300,000 yen may be given to a married couple earning less than 3.4 million ¥ $25,000 a year to help purchase or rent a property, including relocation expenses. 

However, only specific parts of Japan have sanctioned this regional allowance, not the whole country.

A Welcoming Stance for Foreign Workers

Blue-collared workers setting out upon their daily tasks
Blue-collared workers setting out upon their daily tasks

For decades, the topic of allowing more foreign workers to enter the country has often been raised but brushed aside due to previous government approaches in maintaining Japanese dependence.

Among G-7 countries, Japan ranks amongst the least desirable nations to migrate to, behind other leading members like the United States and Canada. However, the Japanese government has loosened immigration restrictions to attract more foreign workers long-term. In past decades, Japan has preferred to accept immigrants with advanced degrees and specialised knowledge, rather than the lower-skilled workers who typically found immigrating to Japan a struggle.

However, In 2019, Japan’s government took a considerable step toward inviting foreign workers to migrate from overseas.

For “specific skilled employees” in 14 industries, such as agricultural work, nursing, and sanitation, a law was passed which made policies simpler for such workers to gain entry into Japan.

Unfortunately, such visas only have a five-year duration, with no alternative for family members to accompany for most sectors listed.

As a result, foreign workers were hesitant to obtain Japan’s newly introduced visas, which encouraged Japanese officials to look into easing such restrictions and become more accommodating. 

However, since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, international borders shut around the world, which caused tremendous strain on labour for companies seeking foreign workers to maintain and stay afloat. 

Immigration is now seen as a demographic solution by the Japanese government 
Immigration is now seen as a demographic solution by the Japanese government 

Time will tell whether immigration can be the answer to Japan’s ever-present problem. However, for a country that thrives on culture, traditions and historical beliefs, does the conclusion rest with the people’s ability to accept such social adjustments? 

In conclusion, changes are specific to Japan’s future. However, such changes need to come from top government voices to encourage the average person to accept a multicultural existence for prosperity and sustainability.


According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), In 2040, Japan will need 6.74 million foreign employees, a four-time increase from today’s workforce.

By the end of 2020, only 2.5% of Japan’s population was made up of foreign-born residents, which accounts for 1.72 million.