Demographics: A Graying Japan

When a politician has the audacity to propose a plan that includes secretly distributing punctured condoms, it is apparent that something is terribly out of sync. But aside from the blatant disregard for our morality, this incident is a testament to the urgency of Japan’s population crisis.

This is the second part of my three-part series on the themes that dominated my interest during my semester abroad. A few weeks ago, I discussed the shortfall of Japan’s business culture (which you can find here). This time, I want to explore another topic that’s not only relevant to the island nation, but to almost all developed economies around the world.

Part 2: Demographics: A Graying Japan

Against the backdrop of a looming economic disaster, issues with minimal short term impact are often overlooked. For Japan, none is more pressing than a demographic crisis. One in four people is currently over the age of 65, and the country’s population is expected to fall by a third by 20601. The situation is hard to visualize, but addressing it would be fundamental to Japan’s future.

For a country known for its liberal attitude towards sexuality (Kanamara Matsuri), why are people so reluctant to have kids? Low fertility is not a problem exclusive to Japan, but there are a number of reasons why they are the perennial symbol of an aging population.


Source: IPSS | Japan Population Forecast

Gender Equality – As part of a global movement towards workplace equity, women in Japan are increasingly joining the workforce with the intention of staying. But while this is a hopeful sign for Japan’s gender imbalance, the country’s culture of life-time employment meant that most women will have to pursuit their careers at the expense of their motherhood (and many of them do).

A similar bias also applies to men. If working long hours is not enough of a disincentive for family building, many are now also faced with an identity crisis. Recent economic stagnation in Japan is challenging the viability of men as the sole breadwinners, leaving many of them feeling inadequate as potential parents. In a world where face triumphs above all, this may be a sizable deterrent.

Celibacy Syndrome – Gender dichotomy is deeply rooted in Japan’s history, but a more recent problem facing them today is the romantic apathy of young adults. 40% of singles are reportedly not looking for relationships, with many of them citing “bothersome” as the reason. Part of it may be attributed to the grueling work culture, but 45% of women actually despise sexual interactions2. This aversion to intimacy, I think, is derived from the association of a romantic commitment.

If being married meant having a label and living a life of less fulfillment, most people would prefer to spend their time on hobbies, families, or careers. Not only that, if there is an impulsive need for anything a relationship can offer, there are services available that will not interrupt their lives – or their hard-earned careers (more on that in part three).

Crowded Cities – The last reason is the simple economics of raising a child. I will be the first to admit that Tokyo is a treasure trove of places to go and things to see. But no matter how appealing the city is, living expenses are hard to overcome. Even if families can afford a kid (real income has in fact fallen in recent years), they are likely to only have one.

This acts as a de-facto one child policy and faces the same challenges that China has. Although not to the same extent, male-to-female ratio has been steadily growing in Japan as well. This increase meant that not only is the overall number of newborns lower year by year, they are also skewed in gender, which further magnifies the problem down the road.


Image Source | Therapeutic robot at a senior home

Image Source | Therapeutic robot at a senior home

Japan is not alone in this. Most developed countries share a similar trajectory for their population growth (or decline). The biggest difference, however, is that the rate of decline in those places are much slower due to having a more robust immigration system in place to offset the aging domestic population. With Japan’s policy of isolationism, they are far less fortunate.

The three examples that I highlighted are an oversimplification of the situation, but they represent the cultural and economic barriers that are ingrained in the Japanese society. For Abe to revive his dying nation, he will need to embrace immigration reform and advocate for child-support policies for his working class. Politicians can argue all day, but they too, are getting old.


(Stay tuned for my “Breeding with Robots” post slated for mid-2040).

National Institute of Population and Social Security Research
Japan Family Planning Association Survey


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