Guest Post: How Demography Is Changing Japan

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by John W. Traphagan of The,

Over the past few months, I have published two articles in The Diplomat that explore some of the issues related to the population decline Japan has started to experience over the past couple of years.  Whether or not this is a problem that needs a solution is open to debate.  Population decline has many benefits, but the fact is that population decline in Japan will also present problems - and very significant ones - as both the Japanese government and its people respond to a very different demographic environment. 

It is interesting to take a look at some of the consequences of population decline that may lie ahead for Japan, particularly since, while Japan may be at the forefront of this trend, it is only one of many countries that will experience population decline over the coming decades.  In East Asia, Korea has a total fertility rate (TFR) - estimated at 1.23 for 2012 - that is roughly similar to Japan’s and China’s TFRs, which are estimated at 1.39 and 1.55 for 2012 respectively.  All of these are well below the replacement rate of 2.1 that is needed to simply maintain the current population size.  This problem is not limited to East Asia; many European countries have very low TFRs and even parts of the developing world are experiencing declining TFRs.

Because Japan is at the forefront of this international trend, it is useful to explore how population decline is already affecting the country, and a particularly good place to look is rural areas, which already are experiencing depopulation often at a striking rate.  The reason rural areas are of particular importance is that in addition to low birth rates, they also tend to experience significant outflows of young people who move to urban areas or abroad.  As John Knight, an anthropologist at Queen’s University in Belfast has noted, rural depopulation in Japan is partly driven by young people being drawn to the life, education, and employment opportunities of urban areas even as they are eager to escape rural areas, which they perceive as offering little in terms of social activities and employment (this is not necessarily the case, as there are many rural areas in which there are large factories that provide jobs, but it is a common perception among the youth).

In his research, Knight has explored the environmental consequences of rural depopulation.  One of these is that as rural areas experience population decline, wildlife (both animal and plant) begins to move back into areas from where it had previously been displaced by human occupation. In many rural areas, particularly in mountain villages, animals such as bears have moved into populated areas where they may pose a risk to residents.  Bears also present problems in farming areas and it is not uncommon to find farmers erecting electrified fences to keep them out of their fields, thus generating expenses related to protecting crops that until recently were not necessary. Knight argues that encroachment by wild animals may further deter people from remaining in the rural parts of Japan.

A drive around farm villages in Japan often brings one face-to-face with one of the more significant consequences of depopulation - abandoned property. An increasing number of houses, and their associated land, are left unoccupied when the elder resident dies.  Younger family members have moved to the cities and are unable or unwilling to return. As a result, buildings are left empty and become very difficult to maintain, with weeds and other brush rapidly growing up around the property. 

Indeed, the growth of the elder population represents one of the more serious challenges associated with a low TFR and depopulation in Japan (or anywhere).  The increasingly inverted structure of Japan’s population pyramid, with fewer young people than old people, means that it will be very difficult to generate the tax revenues necessary to pay for the healthcare needs of the elderly.  Japan’s elder population—those over 65—is currently around 25% of the total.  In rural areas, it is not uncommon to find towns in which 35% or more of the population is over 65.  As the elderly population grows to its anticipated size of more than 1/3 of the total national population, the financial burden of healthcare in Japan will become erroneous, and there could very well be a shortage of labor in the healthcare industry.

Some of the more esoteric effects of population decline in rural areas are the problems it creates for local Buddhist temples.  In Japan, temples are supported by a parish of local residents who pay for the upkeep of the temple and provide for the priest and his family (although many priests also have to supplement their income with other types of work).  Depopulation has meant many temples have seen significant decreases in the size of their parish and, consequently, their level of income. 

In some cases, income becomes insufficient to maintain a temple, forcing temples to merge. These mergers take place even as the workload of priests has increased because the primary work of Buddhist priests in Japan is to conduct rituals for the dead.  A larger elderly population means more funerals and a lack of young people means fewer family members to take care of family grave sites, leaving them to the local priest to upkeep.

Satsuki Kawano, an anthropologist at the University of Guelph, has written an important book called Nature’s Embrace: Japan’s Aging Urbanites and New Death Rites that looks at how some urban (note that these issues are not limited to rural areas) Japanese are developing new approaches to caring for the dead that require little or no human involvement to perform rituals for deceased ancestors.  As Kawano notes, some of those who have chosen to follow these new paths to dealing with death have done so in order to avoid asking their descendants to provide perpetual care of their ancestral spirit, which is the normal pattern among Japanese. 

Kawano’s work illustrates that Japanese are innovative and will find new ways to manage life with fewer people and will create new cultural patterns to address the changes that will emerge as the population continues to decline. 

Many have argued that a smaller population in Japan is a good thing, because the country is currently very crowded - indeed, many Japanese feel this way.  Whether or not this is true, it is certain that Japan will face major challenges in responding to the pragmatic issues of managing and maintaining an infrastructure built by and for a much larger population, as well as issues such as shifting economic patterns and workforce composition as a result of a changing age structure of the society.  The Japanese people will also be forced to create new cultural patterns that respond to the demographic and economic changes that are occurring. 

Additionally, declining populations in the countries of East Asia will be of immense importance in shaping the political and economic dynamics of the region. It is worth noting that up through the end of World War II, women in Japan were awarded by the government for having many children.  The reason for this was to provide sufficient numbers of soldiers to fight for the Japanese Empire. 

Today, the Japanese have no desire for empire and expansion, but the fact remains that population is a variable that remains central to how Japan, and its neighbors, will interact and respond to tensions, such as the current problems surrounding disputed territory in East Asia.  And how people and governments will respond to significant loss of population - emotionally, culturally, and in terms of policy - remains very unpredictable.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
The They's picture

The new solution: replace horse with the elderly!

Half_A_Billion_Hollow_Points's picture

Fukushima will finally bring 3-ttities women to the world, and we will all fuck like rabbits to accelerate the process of idiocracy

zaphod's picture

Yes Japan's economy and demographics are blowing up, but who cares.

Even if their economy tanks, Japan will still be Japan and Japanese culture will still exist as Japanese culture because they have worked to maintain that.

However, even if the US's economy does well, the US is no longer the US and American culture is no longer American culture because we have let that fall and disappear.

So tell me, who is really screwed?

VyseLegendaire's picture

In Japan, Fukushima will be releasing radiation for eternity and the amount already released will cause millions of cancers in the most concentrated population centers in the world. 

DosZap's picture

The increasingly inverted structure of Japan’s population pyramid, with fewer young people than old people, means that it will be very difficult to generate the tax revenues necessary to pay for the healthcare needs of the elderly


Exactly why I posted here a week or so ago that the Japanese Gov't needs to give tax breaks, and /or financial incentives to ALL married couples to start having 3-4 children per family.

Austrailia pays couples do have more kids.

If we had not murdered 50 Million Ameicans due to abortion, we would have had a hell of a lot stronger economy, and we would not NEED to import immigrants,nor would there be much neeed for illegals of alll stripes.

philipat's picture

A simple solution would be to allow immigration to balance off the demographic distortions. But of course, their prescious Racial Purity (aka racism) is more important. So be it........

akak's picture

Oh yeah, so Japan can then experience the same socioeconomic benefits of massive numbers of nonintegrated immigrants as are currently being enjoyed in France, Spain, Germany, California and other such places.

philipat's picture

No, not at all. I was thinking more of a sensible and controlled immigration policy like, for instance, in Australia.

TheFourthStooge-ing's picture


As the elderly population grows to its anticipated size of more than 1/3 of the total national population, the financial burden of healthcare in Japan will become erroneous

I think that's already happened to the financial burden of healthcare in the US.

jeff montanye's picture

much of the healthcare spending in the u.s. is erroneous (mistaken, wrong) but japan is the leading edge of this old folks surplus curve.  if the species survives, there is an "interesting" future out there at a lower population and population growth rate.  the plants and other animals may well appreciate it (if the radioactivity, etc. doesn't get them).

Mike in Tokyo Rogers's picture

Nonsense! Japan already has an extremely sensible immigration policy. "Historically, from 1953 until 2012, Japan Unemployment Rate averaged 2.68" Currently it is 4.2%... Er, what were you saying about a "sensible policy"?

suteibu's picture

That unemployment figure is pure bullshit just like their CPI.  That said, looser immigration is a short-term economic fix that will cause long-term social and economic problems.

GMadScientist's picture

It worked wonders for Ronald Reagan in the 80s.

jeff montanye's picture

looser immigration or bullshit statistics?

suteibu's picture

First one and then the other.

GMadScientist's picture

Long-term social and economic problems. ;)

philipat's picture

So it seems that there are so many anti-immigration, presumably supremacist, types here. I'm surprised, I thought that ZH was a fairly open-minded site??

suteibu's picture

Fuck you on that racist bullshit.  A nation is not its economy but the people who make up the culture.  It is up to them to choose whether or not their culture should be diluted, changed, or otherwise destroyed, not some race-card carrying busy-body or politicians and economists who only see culture as a commodity.

philipat's picture

FU2 and stay pure asshole. Which was eaxctly the original point I was making. I lived in japan for 4 miserable years and was treated like shit, even as Japan CEO of a major Global Corporation. There is no future for Japan, and that makes me feel great. Join the Global community will you. Otherwise perhaps China will help?

Bottom line , the Japanese are the most racist bastards in the world and will never accept foreigners. YOU are the racist.

Vlad Tepid's picture

So are the open minded supposed to lie supine while you trample their opinion that mass immigration is a bad thing?  Just because we're open-minded doesn't mean you get to stride through our opinions with your own (presumably morally superior one) like a giant in tulip field. (No idea where that image just came from)

Also, as we already suspected, (hence the down arrows) you didn't like being in Japan ("Mommy, they hurt my feelings!") and so now you vent your bile in the midst of an honest discussion other people who you've never met were having.

Just because someone doesn't like YOU doesn't mean they are "racist bastards."  I mean, the dictionary definition of "dipshit" is calling an ENTIRE RACE racist...but that irony has failed to puncture your fortess of solitude.

For the record, I live most of the year in Japan, speak Japanese fluently, and have found less overt racsim in Japan than in CA where my parents forced me to be born.  Of course, not being an obnoxious asshole (in any language) probably unfairly biases people into treating me well.

You and AnAnonymous ( a pretty good example of offical PRC folk) go cuddle up somewhere.  Japan willabide.

Vlad Tepid's picture

Thanks for the down arrow and the non-reply, philip.  You're real CEO material - I can see why your Japanese employees were so endeared to you and why your "Major global corporation" decided to off-shore you.


suteibu's picture

Maybe you were treated like shit because you were just as big a prick there as you are here.  You are not Japan's judge.  Keep your racism to yourself.  Fuck you and your global community.

Kobe Beef's picture

Well, Alberto Del Rio (WWE Heavyweight champ) said "America is for everybody", so you must be right. I saw it on RAW, so it must be true.


In reality, why are you surprised thinking people reject Multi-kulti Marxist Klaptrap, and one of the obvious pincers of the Cloward-Piven Destruction Strategy?

Monedas's picture

This is Socialist "Tax Genocide" .... compounded by strict immigration controls !    ("Tax Genocide" is when decent, hole licking producers limit their family size and work themselves to the bone to please their Socialist masters !)

suteibu's picture

Because that has worked out so well for the US and Europe?  Mind your own business.

meizu's picture

That's a retarded idea.  The solution is emigration, Japan should encourage all the old japanese to retire in other countries, say southeast asia.

akak's picture

Well, wouldn't you be too, with the Nikkei down almost 90% in real terms in the last 25 years?

kridkrid's picture

Here's my demographic question (China related, not Japan)... what's china going to do with the 20,000,000 extra 18-28 year old men?  They aren't going to be happy without a wife.  What will keep them busy?  I'm thinking puzzles... not 1,000 piece ones, but like 10,000 piece ones... with tiny pictures of similar looking dogs.

reader2010's picture

China is increasingly relying on modern technology to solve some depressing social needs, that is working on simulation on simulation of reality, I mean sexuality. In not too distant future,  China's Central Government promises that more civilised humans will feel more elated by fucking with machinery than by copulating with humans. Plus, it's good for the GDP numbers too.

suteibu's picture

Foot soldiers in the global game of Risk.  On the other side, the US will reinstitute the draft.  The Japanese will have a front row seat.

Miffed Microbiologist's picture

They'll all be taken care by Elder Care Robots who will also be programmed to do, how do I say.....other duties?


GMadScientist's picture

Hold on, I'm looking up the Hanzi characters for "Mountain" "Back" and "Broken".

akak's picture

Hey, Japan is still a very long way from being Detroit.

magpie's picture

I heard the TPP will allow for unlimited immigration from Mexico so all is good /sarc

TheFourthStooge-ing's picture

Will it allow for unlimited emigration to Mexico?

Kobe Beef's picture

The UN High Kommisar on Refugees has big plans for millions of Bangladeshi "Climate Refugees". Don't count out the NWO yet. They've got plans upon plans for Japan. The question is, do they have all their Phillip Drus in place to effect the changes needed in the Japanese Bureaucracy yet. Time will tell.

RideTheWalrus's picture

Soylent Sushi is old people!!

suteibu's picture

"a particularly good place to look is rural areas, which already are experiencing depopulation often at a striking rate.  The reason rural areas are of particular importance is that in addition to low birth rates, they also tend to experience significant outflows of young people who move to urban areas or abroad."

Young people leaving for urban areas is THE reason for the depopulation of the rural areas, including the lower birthrate.  Duh!

Government policy is central to the hollowing out of the rural areas and destroying the traditional family.  Generations of using schools to train factory workers while offering no incentives for factories to locate in rural areas will have that effect.  So will the creation of a massive welfare state that replaces the family with an all-caring (though currently bankrupt) government. 

What Japan is going through is the expected results of large scale socialism.  The problem isn't depopulation, it's the central planning government.

Monedas's picture

We have "Tax Genocide" of the Randian filth (goverment hole lickers who enable Socialism by giving their all without question nor complaint) .... (Tim McVeigh and Anders Braevik were not government hole lickers) .... compounded by aggressive immigration and fecundity of the welfare ward client voters !

magpie's picture

Are you channeling the Powerpuff Girls...they don't like loose lips, i think.

GMadScientist's picture

Take a drive through Arizona, Monedas.

besnook's picture

post post industrial modernism. the japanese are the real genius' of cultural, societal adaptation. hence the focus on technology to solve pending elderly care issues as one solution to depopulation with an aging population. these are technologies that will be exported to the world, another part of the plan to maintain the wealth of the nation. better productivity with a smaller population means higher per capita income which means maintenance of wealth and the standard of living. the fact that some of the elderly are foregoing some of the ancestral death rituals actually points to a "duty" to die without burden upon the country, community and family in that order. my grandmother was an example of that "responsibility" dying without extraordinary measures to treat terminal cancer at 89 years old more than ten years ago. what was considered a politcian's gaff for saying old people must hurry up and die is actually a common sentiment in japan but abhorrent to western perspective. kevorkian may successfully reincarnate in japan as another adaptation. all in all, the success of industrialization in limiting population growth around the world may save the world from the easter island model the world has been bent upon following but it will take a long time to convince economists, bankers and businessmen that avoiding the easter island fate is the best allocation of resources especially if it can be done while preserving a few luxuries.

the real problem is the world financial condition which is not exclusive to japan.

Vlad Tepid's picture

Please copy and paste this into every ZH thread breathlessly predicting the end of Japan via population bomb.

BigDuke6's picture

Comments of true thought have sadly become rare on zh.
Thanks and well done

VyseLegendaire's picture

"all in all, the success of industrialization in limiting population growth around the world may save the world from the easter island model the world has been bent upon following but it will take a long time to convince economists, bankers and businessmen that avoiding the easter island fate is the best allocation of resources especially if it can be done while preserving a few luxuries."

That's a pretty big 'what-if' scenario.  What evidence is there that the earth as a whole is going to see the light and willfully slow down growth in favor of 'robots to care for the elderly' moderl? 

In Japan the elderly wishing to die fast for the 'sake of the nation' is a psychotic and suicidal notion.  

Second, I don't understand why the rest of the world would move to this model if that's what you're suggesting. The average age of planet earth is not as old as in Japan and other nations are still growing young populations.  

 Third, isn't it true that Japan has fallen behind the curve in scientific and industrial innovations and the idea of a high-tech Japan is one of wistful 20th century fantasies of world economic domination, belied by a very 3rd world and analogue reality, the death of opportunity for the young since the explosion of the Ponzi in 1989, and accentuated by a stagnant and rigormortified culture?

Bicycle Repairman's picture

Japanese demographic problems?  No mention of Fukushima?

Reptil's picture

A blind spot for many analysts.

Japan is not just changing, it's mutating:

And it's not just Japan, it's the USA as well. At 9 minutes 48 seconds in:

(and Europe, and Russia, Australia, China, everywhere the nuclear/militairy industry took hold in the past 60 years)

It's been known to the death cult of nuclear that there are huge problems with nuclear contamination. It's slow, it's invisible at first, but it is irreversible.
This is an "extinction event" sized problem. Because of the problem of bio accumulation it will concentrate throughout the food chain.

There's enough evidence that "low level" contamination has disastrous consequences:

Even strategic analysts like DARPA are aware of the magnitude:

And none of the suits is taking real steps to counter it. Instead they're still counting the imaginairy money. Time to make some hard descisions about our faltering leadership.