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In 2006, Japan reached a demographic and social turning point. According to Tokyo’s official statistics, deaths that year very slightly outnumbered births. Nothing like this had been recorded since 1945, the year of Japan’s catastrophic defeat in World War II. But 2006 was not a curious perturbation. Rather, it was the harbinger of a new national norm.
Japan is now a “net mortality society.” Death rates today are routinely higher than birthrates, and the imbalance is growing. The nation is set to commence a prolonged period of depopulation. Within just a few decades, the number of people living in Japan will likely decline 20 percent. The Germans, who saw their numbers drop by an estimated 700,000 in just the years from 2002 to 2009, have a term for this new phenomenon: schrumpfende Gesellschaft, or “shrinking society.” Implicit in the phrase is the understanding that a progressive peacetime depopulation will entail much more than a lowered head count. It will inescapably mean a transformation of family life, social relationships, hopes and expectations—and much more.
But Japan is on the cusp of an even more radical demographic makeover than the one now under way in Germany and other countries that are in a similar situation, including Italy, Hungary, and Croatia. (The United States is also aging, but its population is still growing.) Within barely a generation, demographic trends promise to turn Japan into a dramatically—in some ways almost unimaginably—different place from the country we know today. If we go by U.S. Census Bureau projections for Japan, for example, there will be so many people over 100 years of age in 2040, and so few babies, that there could almost be one centenarian on hand to welcome each Japanese newborn. Population decline and extreme population aging will profoundly alter the realm of the possible for Japan—and will have major reverberations for the nation’s social life, economic performance, and foreign relations. Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction. It is not clear that Japan’s path will be a harbinger of what lies ahead in other aging societies. Over the past century, modernization has markedly increased the economic, educational, technological, and social similarities between Japan and other affluent countries. However, Japan has remained distinctive in important respects—and in the years ahead it may become increasingly unlike other rich countries, as population change accentuates some of its all-but-unique attitudes and proclivities. . . .
Japan’s postwar fertility plunge has been so steep that it can be described as a virtual collapse. In 2008, barely 40 percent as many Japanese babies were born as in 1948. In fact, the country’s annual birth totals are lower today than they were a century ago—and if current projections come to pass, Japan will not have many more newborns in 2050 than it did in the 1870s.We can get a sense of the shape of things to come by comparing Japan’s current population profile with an estimate for 2040. Not even 30 years from now, more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older. Japan is already the world’s grayest society, with a median age of almost 45 years. By 2040 its median age, to go by U.S. Census Bureau projections, will rise to an almost inconceivable 55. (By way of comparison, the median age in the retirement haven of Palm Springs, California, is currently under 52 years.)
This aging society, of course, will also be shrinking. By Tokyo’s projections, Japan’s population will decline from about 127 million today—the 10th largest in the world—to about 106 million in 2040. The working-age population (ages 15–64) will plunge 30 percent, from 81 million to 57 million. In 2040, by these projections, the total population will be declining by about one percent annually (roughly one million people per year), and the working-age population by almost two percent annually.
But there is more. Japan’s historically robust (if perhaps at times stifling) family relations, a pillar of society in all earlier generations, stand to be severely and perhaps decisively eroded in the coming decades. Traditional “Asian family values”—the ideals of universal marriage and parenthood—are already largely a curiosity of the past in Japan. Their decay has set in motion a variety of powerful trends which virtually ensure that the Japan of 2040 will be a country with far greater numbers of aged isolates, divorced individuals, and adults whose family lines come to an end with them.
At its heart, marriage in traditional Japan was a matter of duty, not just love. Well within living memory, arranged marriages (miai) predominated, while “love matches” (renai kekkon) were anomalies. Love matches did not exceed arranged pairings until 1970—yet by 2005, only six percent of all new marriages fit the traditional mold. The collapse of arranged marriage seems to have taken something with it. Remarkably enough, there is a near perfect correlation between the demise of arranged marriage in Japan and the decline in postwar Japanese fertility.
Unshackled from the obligations of the old family order, Japan’s young men and women have plunged into a previously unknown territory of interpersonal options. One consequence has been a headlong “flight from marriage,” as Australian demographer Gavin Jones describes it. Increasingly, men and women in modern Japan have been postponing marriage—or avoiding it altogether. Between 1965 and 2005, for example, the proportion of never-married women in their late thirties shot up from six percent to 18 percent. Among men, the proportion rose even more steeply, from four percent to 30 percent. Many of these single adults still have not left home, creating a new breed of parasaito shinguru, or “parasite singles” . . .
Despite salutary trends in “healthy aging,” Japan’s extraordinary demographics can only mean that a rapidly growing share of the country’s population will be frail in the years ahead—and that public pension allowances, health and medical services, and long-term care will be ever more pressing priorities for Japanese society. Not the least of the problems may concern Alzheimer’s disease. A study commissioned by Alzheimer’s Disease International suggests that, on current track, the prevalence of dementia in the Japanese population could rise to five percent by 2050—one person in 20. The caregiving implications of such an outcome are staggering—and given the coming erosion of the Japanese family, a steadily decreasing proportion of senior citizens will have children to turn to for support. Under such circumstances, an increase in long-term institutionalization among the elderly seems inescapable. . . .
For better or worse, depopulation and pervasive graying look to be Japan’s lot for as far as our imaginations can stretch. In one sense, this may simply make the Japanese a “pioneer people”: Many other nations and populations may likewise eventually find themselves to be shrinking societies, too. Japan’s efforts to cope with the problems posed (and also to capitalize on the opportunities presented) by a prosperous and orderly depopulation may prove exemplary for the rest of the world. On the other hand, as Japanese themselves are so often the first to point out, their own minzoku—an emotive and heavily freighted term meaning “tribe,” “race,” or “nationality”—is in important ways unique. “Depopulation with Japanese characteristics” may therefore turn out to look different from prospective depopulations elsewhere—and Japan may face special, self-imposed constraints in dealing with its impending appointment with this demographic future. In either case, making the most of the new demographic realities that lie in store in the decades ahead could be one of this great nation’s very greatest trials.* * *