Demographic Sunset in the Land of the Rising Sun: Japan in the 21st Century

Everyone has a favourite iconic Japanese consumer product – the Sony Walkman, a Panasonic DVD recorder, Blu-ray disc player, a Canon, Nikon, Minolta or Pentax camera or even a Toyota Prius. But this century will witness the long, slow sunset of Japan’s power.

That’s because the country’s ageing and depopulating society will drag the economy down with it, as it has already started to do.

“There’s a difference between being comfortable and being viable. We are gradually losing our viability… Japan has been utterly defeated as an economy. We’re losing the economic game.” Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing

“Our choice is rebirth or ruin.”—Yoichi Funabashi in “Japan’s Zero Hour”

Although there is a moderate danger before 2050 of a nationalistic war with China, [1] the new Asian giant, it is more likely that Japan will manage its century-long decline in relative peace, probably accompanied by a final flowering of exquisite Japanese art and literature, tinged with nostalgic tones. Then, after several decades of graceful decline, population ageing and demographic shrinkage, the country will face colonisation by an Asian power. If the conquerors subsequently inter-breed with the Japanese, it could mean an eventual vanishing of Japan within a generation or two of this conquest. Another great civilisation will have been consigned to history, at some time in the 22nd century, fatally weakened from within by a depopulation process which began, ironically, in the midst of the nation’s greatest economic boom.

The key to understanding the anticipated collapse of Japan lies in its demographics. Japanese depopulation is starkly evident in the forecasted decline of its total population [2] in the most current national population statistics based on census data.

The high-point of Japan’s population was 128 million, but it is projected to decrease by 2060 to just over 85 million. By 2100, it is anticipated to collapse to 37.9 million. [3] To shrink from 128 million people to around 38 million people in this century would mean losing approximately 90 million citizens in 90 years, a severe average depopulation rate of 1 million people every year. That’s like losing annually the combined populations of the cities of Las Vegas and Miami.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo indicates that Japan started suffering net losses of population from 2005, the year in which there were more deaths than births for the first time since records began. [4] By 2010, there were 126,000 more deaths than births.

2005, then, is the year depopulation officially kicked in to cause net losses to Japan’s national population. The crude death rate in that year (8.6%) exceeded the birth rate (8.4%) for the very first time. By 2010 the death rate had risen to 9.5% with the birth rate at 8.5%.

In 2005, Japan became a society in which more people die each year than are born.

One cause of depopulation, which is likely to lead to the downfall of Japan if it is not reversed, is a collapse in the total fertility rate (TFR) for Japanese females in their child-bearing years (from 15-49). This TFR fell precipitously from 5.10 in 1925 to an exceptionally low 1.39 by 2010 (compared to a UN world average of 2.52 for 2010). [5] The replacement rate for a population is two children per woman. With its TFR not just below 2 but now under 1.5, it is not surprising that Japan’s population is shrinking and getting older. The CIA World Factbook ranks Japan 202 out of 222 countries in its country comparison table for TFRs. [6] Japan’s net reproduction rate fell by over half from 108.2 in 1925 to 44.0 by 2010.

Ominously, such a depletion of population will be accompanied by an equally significant fall in economically active citizens (those in the working age bracket of 15-64).

This shrinking population with its declining workforce will also be ageing. Sadly, the only aspect of Japan’s population which will continue to grow relative to other age groups will be its senior citizenry (those aged 65 and over).

The mean age of the Japanese is expected to rise from 45 years old in 2010 to 54.6 years old by 2060. [7] We are looking at the world’s oldest society. [8]

Japan from now on, then, will be characterised by a rapidly decreasing population (through its falling birth rate and TFR), a shrinking number of workers, a declining young age group and an escalating aged population. [9]

The IMF estimates Japan’s GDP could fall 20 percent over this century if its population shrinks as expected. [10] The 65+ age group will also become a much larger part of society, turning Japan into a gray society, whilst by 2060 only half of the nation will be in the working age group driving the economy.

In short, Japan will be a gradually contracting society experiencing a serious, and possibly terminal, demographic crisis. I believe it is impossible for a society with this demographic profile to sustain competitive rates of economic growth in the long-term, given the costs of looking after the elderly, [11] the loss of taxation income for the government, the depletion of labour and productivity and the fact that older people do not spend and buy as easily as their younger counterparts (consumer spending accounts for about 60 percent of Japan’s GDP).

The prognostic signs of Japanese depopulation were emptying hamlets known as genkai shuraku [12] (“terminal or limited villages”) which began to appear in the rural areas of the country in the 1980s, as had been warned by some prescient social scientists as early as the mid-1970s. [13]

But it is long-term, continuous depopulation which becomes a fatal disease for any society. Depopulation will be a malignant social cancer, eating away at the heart of a nation.

It is not just these population projections on paper which are a concern. For Japan has important psycho-cultural problems exacerbating these demographic trends. The nation appears to be suffering from a strange, unprecedented sociological malaise which is destroying the family structure and its critical child-bearing role, a loss of national vitality characterised by declining belief in marriage, decreasing fertility rates of females, shrinking families and the spread of isolation and fatalism.

The structure of the family in Japan has been critically weakened. Political economist and demographer with the American Enterprise Institute, Nicholas Eberstadt, explains that between 1970-2005, the proportion of never-married women in their late 30s rose from 5.8% to 18.4%. In 2010, a third of Japanese women entering their 30s were single, with at least half of them not expected to marry at all, compared to 13-15% of women in Britain and the US in their late 30s who are single. [14] Drawing on data from the Asia Research Institute, Eberstadt points out that by 2040 about 24% of 50 year-old Japanese women will never have married and 38% of them will be childless. [15] Both the average marriage age of women and the numbers of women between 35-39 who never married rose steeply in Japan between 1980-2005. [16] There has been a steady erosion of marriage and its child-bearing role in post-industrial Japan .

On top of this, the crude divorce rate per 1,000 population in Japan has risen steadily decade by decade from 1970 as follows:


Divorce Rate (per 1,000 population)









According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, in 2010, there was a divorce in Japan every 2 minutes and 5 secs. [18] Clearly, there is a weakening of marriage and the family in Japan.

Japan is also sinking into a wave of isolationism: “People in today’s Japan seem content with what they have. They are very conservative, with a stagnant mentality, an isolationist drift.” [19] Another commentator states that there is a “notable lack of interest, according to recent polls, of young Japanese in travelling overseas…” [20] Yet another laments that “there are only 29,000 Japanese students studying at US colleges compared with 75,000 South Koreans and 98,000 Chinese…”, [21] arguing that the Japanese people have a lower tolerance for change than many other populations: “I have a sense that the country has become more inwardly focused; it pays insufficient attention to external issues.” [22] In business and in research, analysts often refer to the “Galapagos [little island] syndrome” [23] in Japan, whereby the focus is increasingly on what products work in Japan rather than in the global marketplace as a whole. Isolationism is not unknown in Japan. The country once had an official policy of sakoku  (or “closed country”) from 1641 to 1853 during its Tokugawa shogunate period (which lasted from 1600-1868). It is quite telling that foreigners make up a mere 2% of its population today. Japan could become the first country in the world to die from introspection.


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