News

Japan Struggles to Figure Out How to Defuse Population Implosion

Japan has long known that its population would begin to decline one day. But as 2005 comes to a close, the country is being shaken by the news that the population fell by 19,000 this year, which means the decline began sooner than forecast.

Japan changed from a feudal, farming society into a manufacturing powerhouse in less than a century, and then rebuilt after a catastrophic war to become the world's second biggest economy. Now, however, it faces a new economic challenge, which may bring wrenching change.

Its population of 127 million is beginning to decline. The head of the Health Ministry's vital statistics division, Reiji Murayama, says the contraction began this year, two years earlier than expected.

Mr. Murayama says for the first time since the government began keeping records in 1899, this year marks the first time that deaths from natural causes will exceed births.

The number of domestic births has dropped five years in a row, while deaths have been annually increasing for the past five years. That is because so much of the country's population is elderly, and they have a higher death rate than other age groups.

University of Nevada-Las Vegas economist Takashi Yamashita, who studies aging and population, says no country has ever confronted such a trend.

"This is unprecedented. And the speed that Japanese society is aging is also unprecedented. It's not only the magnitude but also the speed of change is so quick.

The looming population implosion has Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressing concern because of fears of what a population slump will do to the economy.

The prime minister says he is worried that the declining birthrate is becoming more conspicuous. Mr. Koizumi says he feels measures are needed to stop the trend.

Although historically, as countries have become wealthier, their birth rates have slowed, for rich countries such as Japan, a birth rate that is too low can lead to slower economic growth. There are fewer families needing new homes and furniture, fewer children who need clothes and toys, and fewer young, energetic workers to make things or provide services.

And at the current pace, Japan's population will drop in half in less than a century. At the same time, the average age will rise. That means there will be fewer young workers to pay taxes and contribute to the social security system needed to support elderly retirees.

Economists say the country also will face a dire shortage of workers in the health and service industries to cater to Japan's gray population.

Some demographers contend immigration is the only way to reverse the trend. But such a suggestion has little political and public support in this ethnically homogenous island nation.

Economics professor Takashi Yamashita is among those who believe Japan will have to open its borders a bit more. He suggests looking to other nations, such as Canada, for a model.

"I really don't know any country that's opened up so quickly within a short period of time," he said. "In some cities in Canada, say Toronto or Vancouver, 40 percent of the population is foreign born. If you can control immigration pretty well, like Canada does, it's possible that Japan can prosper and, essentially, import a lot of skilled workers."

But that is unlikely to happen, so more of the elderly may have to be enticed to delay retirement - to keep factories and offices humming. Japan's women also are likely to be under more pressure - both to have more babies and to take a greater role in the workplace.

Environment Minister Yoriko Koike says Japan should not expect to suddenly see a lot of new mothers.

Ms. Koike says young women in Japan do not see raising children as something pleasurable, so they do not want to have babies.

Surveys consistently find women here complaining about inadequate childcare and lack of support in raising kids from husbands who work long hours. Some local governments have tried to entice young couples to have more children by offering economic incentives, but to little success.

In an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem, the prime minister has appointed a member of his cabinet to tackle the declining birthrate and boost gender equality.

Mr. Koizumi gave the post to Kuniko Inoguchi, a distinguished academic and former ambassador.

Ms. Inoguchi calls for drastic changes in Japanese society to defuse the population implosion. She says nothing will change unless the country's leaders and society begin to see things from the viewpoints of young couples and children.

Women here also are frustrated in their attempts to succeed in the workplace. They find themselves generally relegated to secretarial and other low-level posts.

That presents Japanese women with equally daunting choices between a glass ceiling at the workplace or raising children with inadequate assistance from the state and their husbands.

 


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs