Japan Shrinks: Many Nations Have Aging Populations, but None Can Quite Match Japan. Its Experience Holds Lessons for Other Countries as Well as Insights into the Distinctiveness of Japanese Society

Article excerpt

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 If. 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 future population profile has already very largely been set. Well over 75 percent of the people who will inhabit the Japan of 2040 are already alive, living there today. The country's population trajectory will be driven by three fundamental and distinctively Japanese trends: (1) extremely favorable general health conditions--the Japanese now enjoy the world's greatest longevity, and the outlook is for further improvements; (2) an unusually strong aversion to immigration; and (3) the most pronounced and prolonged period of sub-replacement fertility of any nation in the modern world.

Japan's total fertility rate first dipped temporarily below replacement level in the 1950s, a time when the rest of the world was just beginning to grow alarmed by the possibility of a "population explosion." It has remained below replacement level (around 2.1 births per woman) since the early 1970s. The total fertility rate--a measure of births per woman per lifetime-while up slightly from its low (to date) of 1.26 in 2005, was a mere 1.37 in 2009, only two-thirds of the level required for long-term population stability. (Japan's population continued to grow into the 21st century because the pool of women of childbearing age kept growing until about 1990, while tremendous improvements in health among seniors postponed the intersection of death and birth totals. …