People who visit Japan have many different experiences, but they usually agree on one thing—there aren’t a lot of kids. This isn’t an illusion. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
Due to the low birth rate, Japan has an aging and shrinking population. These trends have significant negative effects on the society and economy of the country. The government has gone to great lengths to reverse the trends and solve the problem, but so far, the birth rate is still decreasing. There are clearly deeper issues at hand.
The population crisis in Japan has many factors. Once you recognize them, you’ll understand why this is an ongoing problem that isn’t just relevant to the future of Japan, but the future of the entire global community.
A Shrinking Population
In 2019, there were around 864,000 babies born in Japan. Considering Japan has a population well over 125 million, that’s not a lot of babies. In fact, this is the lowest number of births the government has seen since they began counting in 1899. It was a 5.9% decrease from 2018.
Based on the current numbers, the Japanese government expects the population to drop below 100 million by 2053. By 2065, there will only be an estimated 88 million people in Japan, a drop of around 30%.
As the result of a shrinking population, Japan is the oldest country in the world. About a third of the country is over 60 years old.
When such a large portion of the population is elderly, it has noticeable effects on the society and culture. For example, production, services and marketing begin to focus more on things the elderly need. In Japan, you’ll find more shelf space devoted to adult diapers than baby diapers. Gym classes are aimed at the elderly, and you might find there are more reserved seats on public transportation for them.
More importantly, biomedical technologies and cosmetic surgery have become booming businesses. There are more nursing homes, adult daycare centers and home health services.
The most shocking social consequence of the shrinking population is probably the modern phenomenon of kodokushi, or “lonely death” in English. Traditionally, Japanese people take care of their older relatives, but as there are more and more elderly and fewer young people to care for them, those older relatives spend more and more time alone.
As a result, people have begun dying alone without the deaths being discovered for days, weeks, even months. The first case to gain national attention was in 2000. A 69-year-old man’s death wasn’t discovered for three years, and that was only after his bank account ran out and could no longer fulfill automatic payments.
Now, 20 years later, as the population has continued declining, kodokushi is a relatively common occurrence. It’s estimated that 2,000 people in Tokyo alone die this way every year.
A declining population can have a detrimental effect on a country’s economy. Generally speaking, young people are more productive. They have fewer health problems and can devote more time to work. When people get too old to work themselves, they have to be supported by the younger population.
If there are plenty of young people, this isn’t a problem. Imagine a family with ten children, each of which has ten of their own children. When the grandparents are too old to take care of themselves, there are 100 people available to help them. That should be easy to manage. Now imagine a family with only one child who doesn’t have any children of his or her own. Now when the grandparents can’t support themselves anymore, there’s only one person who can take care of them. That’s quite a responsibility.
This effect can happen on the level of an entire country, something many developed nations are experiencing right now. Japan is seeing one of the worst cases of all. As the population gets older and there are fewer and fewer young people, a larger burden is placed on those young people to support the older generations. At a national level, this manifests in public health care, pensions, social security and even the simple examples of children caring for their elderly parents.
The resulting decrease in productivity can be seen in GDP. Japan has essentially been in a recession since the 90s, and the economy has been contracting. The government has been having to take out debt—in part to fund these social programs that care for the elderly—and this debt further increases the burden on the young working population.
The labor force is also severely affected. In Japan, there are 125 open jobs for every 100 job seekers. That might sound great if you’re looking for a job, but when it comes to essential industries, it’s a major problem. The average Japanese farmer is 70, and only 10% of construction workers are under 30. It’s easy to see why in just a few years, this could threaten the food and housing supply.
Why Is This Happening?
Like we pointed out, population decline isn’t just a problem for Japan. Most developed nations are dealing with it or expected to deal with it in the future. However, Japan is certainly the most severe example.
That’s because Japan is experiencing a kind of perfect storm of statistics and culture.
Japan has the highest life expectancy of any full nation-state, and by a lot. In 2017, it was estimated at 85.3 years. Switzerland is arguably the next highest at 82.6, almost three years lower.
Similarly, Japan has low fertility. In 2016, there were only 1.41 children born per woman in Japan. It’s generally accepted that a country needs to have a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to keep the population from shrinking, so Japan’s number is incredibly low.
You might already be able to see the downward spiral this creates, but we’ll get to that later.
These statistical trends are exacerbated by some of Japan’s cultural aspects. For example, Japan has a long tradition of self-isolation. That means they don’t have a lot of immigration and don’t permit a lot of foreign workers into the country.
Europe and the US have been able to lessen the effects of their shrinking populations to an extent by replacing them with immigrants. In Japan, that isn’t the case.
Japanese culture also emphasizes a traditional family structure and gender roles. Men are expected to work and provide, women are expected to care for the children. Young adults are expected to care for their children as well as their elderly family members.
This cultural background mixes with the statistical realities to create very unique phenomena in the country.
The Perfect Storm
Japanese Work Culture
Consider these factors. One, the Japanese population is becoming older and less productive. Two, Japanese people, especially men, feel a lot of pressure to make enough money to care for all their family members, both younger and older. Add to this an already hard-working and generally stoic culture, and your result is an overworked population.
People need more money to support the elderly who can’t work. This might simply be their own family members, or it might be through social programs and pensions. Therefore, they have to work harder and more hours. This means they have less time and money for dating, marriage and child-rearing. They have fewer children, and the cycle continues.
Japanese Childcare Culture
The financial pressure also affects women. Historically, Japanese women have lived with their parents until they get married and their husband provides for them. However, as wages drop and men have more expenses for taking care of the elderly, fewer men can provide for a wife.
As a result of this as well as their own desires, more women have entered the workforce. Once in the workforce, women also experience the same long hours and low wages as men. A study revealed that 60% of Japanese women said they were too tired from working to consider dating and getting married.
Virginity and “Herbivore Men”
It’s hard to increase the birth rate if people aren’t sleeping together. The shrinking population makes this difficult, though. With no time or money for dating, the University of Tokyo found that over a quarter of Japanese adults in the prime parenthood ages of 18-39 are virgins.
A big part of this is how important money is for men on the Japanese dating market. Since Japanese women traditionally expect men to be providers, men who don’t make enough to support a family either can’t find partners or feel so underconfident that they don’t bother. Unemployed men are eight times more likely to be virgins, and men who work part-time are four times more likely.
The result is the Japanese phenomenon called Sōshoku-kei danshi. In English, you may have heard it translated as “grass-eaters” or “herbivore men.” This refers to the large part of the Japanese male population who simply aren’t interested in dating or marriage. A survey found that a whopping 75% of men in their 20s and 30s identify as grass eaters.
The Downward Spiral
As you can see, a lot of factors have led to the current situation. Something that started out simple has begun to manifest as major cultural phenomena that reinforce themselves and make the problem worse.
In the simplest sense, the declining birth rate creates an environment that further discourages people from having children. This makes the environment even more discouraging and down goes the spiral. The only solution is to break the cycle.
What Has The Government Done To Fix The Problem?
In the last decade or so, the Japanese government has started to take the problem very seriously. Consequently, they’ve taken several measures designed to revitalize the birth rate and contracting economy.
Subsidies for children
Since such a large portion of Japanese people feel they don’t make enough money to care for children, the government has taken action by simply paying people money to have kids. This is called the “Child Benefit.”
Exactly how much a family gets depends on several things like number of children and income, but in general, the government pays the average family about $2,500 to have a child.
On top of the government, employers have also started giving bonuses to employees who have babies.
Free Preschool And Childcare Leave
To try and ease the burden of child-rearing on women, the Japanese government has instituted free early childhood education. That way women can send their children to school earlier and return to the workforce faster after having a baby.
Furthermore, many laws allow parents to devote more time to raising kids. For example, The Child Care and Family Care Leave Law took effect in 2010. This gives parents one year of leave after they have a baby and limits the amount of hours employers can demand of new parents.
The idea is to encourage people to have children but keep them working. The government especially wants women to enter the workforce while still having babies. Theoretically, that could jumpstart the productivity of the country in general and break the cycle.
Money For Fertility Treatments
A more drastic measure, the Japanese government has decided to help women and couples pay for fertility treatments. This includes paying 80% of the cost of freezing eggs as well as subsidies for in vitro fertilization treatments. This way, the age range for parenthood is much larger, and that should increase the birth rate.
Finally, the Japanese government is simply trying to get people together. Many cities and prefectures have local speed dating events so people can meet potential partners without needing a lot of time. For example, in Fukui, the government has even set up a website for konkatsu, a new Japanese term for “marriage hunting.”
Why Isn’t It Working?
Despite government efforts, the cycle continues. Take the case of government-sponsored konkatsu. Three years of speed dating sponsored by the Ishioki city hall resulted in only two married couples. A far cry from the dramatic change necessary to put Japan’s population back on the uptick.
Too little too late
Most economists and government officials recognize the measures combatting the declining population were taken too late. While the economic and social effects have only become felt recently, the antecedents have been there for decades.
The birth rate dropped below the 2.1 children/woman necessary for replacement as early as 1974. The downward spiral has reinforced itself year after year until now it’s reached a point where it’s much harder to stop.
Some experts even trace the roots all the way back to World War II. Japan’s defeat and subsequent disarmament led to a loss of traditional masculine traits in the country’s men. Since the culture places such an emphasis on traditional gender roles, this has made men less confident and women less attracted to the men around them.
Either way, it’s clear that the time to attack the low birth rate was much sooner. In this way, Japan is an important example for other developed nations. Its present is their future, so those countries should consider taking action now.
Culture Is Deep, Policy Is Shallow
If things like post-WWII gender dynamics are truly part of the problem, it’s safe to say government policies like free preschool, while helpful, are nothing more than bandaids on a lethal wound.
Generally, these financial and social policies can make a difference, but they’re mostly marginal. The cultural aspects are much deeper and more ingrained. This is especially true in Japan, which is a very collectivist society where going against the culture is considerably more difficult.
That means that Japan can’t just solve this problem with policy. It has to be a change in the culture, a reverse of the downward spiral. For one thing, the people have to be more aware. If you ask the average Japanese person, they’ll probably tell you that Japan is a developed and technologically advanced country with all the comforts you could imagine. Not having kids just means more money and time to enjoy it.
In other words, policy measures to ease the burden of having children are a start, but they’re not enough to stop the decline. That has to happen at a cultural level. People have to stop thinking of children as burdens in general, but rather as investments in their own future and the future of their nation. Not just in Japan, but all over the world.