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Japanese Population: A Puzzle

A recent bombshell report by Kyoto University Professor Tomoya Mori has highlighted the long-term challenges caused by Japan’s shrinking population. His headline data point, that half of Japan’s cities are at risk of disappearing in the next 100 years, is certainly attention grabbing. By his estimation the Japanese population could shrink down to less than 40 Million over the same period. Leaving the country with roughly the same populace that it had in 1800. For a nation that was, during its 1980s boom period, tipped to potentially rise to Superpower-status, it’s a sobering situation. One worth unpacking.

Decline in the Japanese population has been caused by decades of low birthrates. The Japanese population surged immediately after World War Two, mirroring the “Baby Boom” in the West. But it dipped to below replacement level in 1974, and has stubbornly remained there ever since. The main problem this generates is an ever smaller group of working age people, paying taxes and supporting an increasingly aged populace. Lower productivity and lower economic growth. This situation has hit rural villages and smaller towns hardest. With a combination of elder ageing and younger brain-drain to larger cities like Tokyo and Fukuoka sapping these locations of their stability. Hence Professor Mori’s dire prediction of them eventually disappearing off the map.

Small Japanese Town 2

Solutions & Upsides

But Japan is a country that’s never lacked for industry and ideas. The situation may have less dire consequences, and even upsides, if the country stratagise correctly.

The slowing and shrinking Japanese population means, outside of some of the most popular urban areas, Japan has comparatively good housing affordability. Purchasing their own home is a realistic prospect for much of Japan’s younger generations. It’s this phenomenon which has led to the rural-regeneration programs organised by the Japanese government (many of which have gone viral on the internet due to their eye-popping value) with heavily subsidised housing being offered to young families in declining towns and villages. To help boost their population, and potentially give them a future. When contrasted with Western countries, such as the UK and Ireland, where housing policy is a heated topic of generational political conflict, Japan is in a much stronger, more stable position.

 

Robotic Potential

Japan has been one of the countries to most embrace robotics and automation. Being considered a pioneer in the industry for decades. Developments like the Cyberdyne Hybrid Assistive Limb exoskeleton evoke images of an army of robotic and robot-assisted healthcare workers scanning, moving and easing Japan’s elderly citizens into a comfortable retirement, while advanced industrial robots from companies like Yaskawa Electric, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries help the younger generation to increase economic productivity even as the population shrinks. Moreover, while the West has a slightly better age pyramid than Japan for now, these same demographic patterns are playing out across the developed world- with South Korea and China not far behind Japanese trends (and in some ways in worse shape). Perhaps Japan has just got to the challenge first. 

One of the positives about solving the Japanese population puzzle that almost everyone in Japan accepts that it’s a problem. I know from my personal interactions with Japanese friends and colleagues, the challenge is clear and people are committed to fixing it. With that widespread understanding can come broad social solutions. Let’s hope that Professor Mori can ultimately be proved wrong. I’m sure he’d be very happy with that.

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About Sam Barker

Sam L Barker is a business professional with years of experience working in software and technology. He is also a freelance writer focusing on the areas of Japanese culture, music, tech and business. He used to live in Tokyo and loves night walks through the city.