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The Guardian Feb 3, 2002


Birth dearth can turn Japan into nation of ancients

by Jonathan Watts in Tokyo Japan's demographic time bomb is ticking faster than previously believed, according to a new government study that predicts a population implosion in the world's second biggest economy after 2006.

The figures - which bring forward by a year the start of what is expected to be a long and rapid decline - heighten fears that Japan is running out of time to prepare its health, tax, pension and immigration systems for a change that will have global repercussions.

According to the latest four-yearly survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the number of Japanese will peak four years from now at 127.74 million before dropping.

Falling sperm rates for men and higher career aspirations for women have created a birth dearth that will chip 500,000 off of the population every year until 2050, when one in three will be of retirement age.

If the trend continues to 2100, the number of Japanese will have halved and many vibrant cities will be ghost towns haunted only by the elderly because the country has the longest life expectancy on the planet. This estimate is based on the 1997 fertility rate of 1.39 children per woman - well below the 2.1 replacement level that a country needs to keep the population from falling.

The shrinking pains are already being felt. Last week, the government revealed that deflation has worsened, while unemployment hit a new record high of 5.6 per cent. Over the past 12 years, stocks have fallen by 75 per cent and land prices have more than halved.

This decline, previously blamed on the bursting of the economic bubble, is now increasingly being tied to the demographic shift.

Italy, the only country in the world with a lower birth rate, makes up for the shortfall through immigration. But Japan prides itself on the racial 'purity' of a population in which foreigners account for only 1 per cent.

The United Nations says Japan needs 600,000 immigrants a year. But last year Japan accepted only 36 refugees and tightened its restrictions on entering the country.

Politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen have been wracking their brains about how to encourage domestic couples to go forth and multiply. Parliament is considering a budget that proposes a rise in childcare and maternity spending despite record cuts almost everywhere else.

Toymaker Bandai offers its workers a baby bounty of 6,000 on the birth of their third child. The federation of employers' associations has suggested the government encourage women to have children out of wedlock.

Along with these carrots have been sticks, including the stigmatisation of 'parasite singles', the recently coined term for 10 million unmarried men and women between the ages of 20 and 34 who live with their parents.

Hope was pinned last year on an imperial baby boost with the birth of a first child to Crown Princess Masako after eight years of marriage. But the only thing that rose, and only briefly - was shares in children's clothing manufacturers. The Health Ministry estimates the birth rate declined last year, the first year in which the number of people aged 70 exceeded the number of 10-year-olds.

Although the Japanese enjoy one of the highest average incomes in the world, most men cite financial constraints, especially the high cost of education, as the main disincentive for having a child.

Women say the biggest reason is the lack of support, from the government and spouses, for working mothers in a society in which women are traditionally expected to care for children, husbands and elderly parents-in-law.

Britain is among more than 60 countries, accounting for two-fifths of the world population, with a birth rate under the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

In 2006, Japan is set to be first to begin the descent, but others could easily follow.

-- (, February 02, 2002


Ah so, 50 year old geisha "girls"

-- (shigeo@samurai.ronin), February 03, 2002.

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