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Disappearing Japan?

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Japan’s population started declining in 2005.  By the end of the 21st century, it will have halved from its present almost 130 million.  This is principally due to a dramatic decline in the birth rate these last 60 years.  At the same time, Japan’s population is rapidly ageing.  Its elderly population (aged 65 or older) could jump from 20 per cent of the total population in 2006 to 40 per cent by 2044. 

Some central, eastern and western European countries also have declining populations, as will China due to its one child policy.  But Japan’s population decline is probably the sharpest.  Virtually all countries are also experiencing population ageing, but again Japan is ageing more than all others.

Prior to the 20th century, population decline was mostly due to diseases like the plague in Europe, and the arrival old world diseases in the new world.  Such population declines sometimes had positive effects as it relieved pressure on resources.  In the modern world, the main reasons for population decline are emigration and sub-replacement fertility rates. 

But it is also interesting to note that most of the countries with declining population have problematic economic futures.  For example, Japan has been in crisis for two decades, Italy has long been in a state of political paralysis, and many of the former communist countries are mired in political and social problems.  Open societies and economies, like the US and Australia, have growing populations, in part due to immigration. 

According to the OECD, expanding childcare facilities and paying more attention to work-life balance would raise Japan’s exceptionally low birth rate.  Other observers argue that Japan’s low birth rate has a more simple explanation.  The Japanese do not make love – or I should say, Japanese married couples do not make love.

First, what does the OECD have to say?  Japan’s total fertility rate has fallen from 2.16 in 1971, to 1.26 in 2005.  Although it rebounded to 1.32 in 2006, it remains the lowest in the OECD area after Korea.  From an arithmetic perspective, the declining birth rate is due to delayed marriage and the fall in the number of children per couple.  Empirical research indicates that as women work more, their level of fertility declines, more so for full time than part time workers.  Further, childbearing also declines with higher wages for women.  If firms provide child support, childbearing will rise, as it also will if childcare services are available.

In short argues the OECD, childbearing is basically an economic decision.  Inspired by this, the government has undertaken some initiatives to improve the incentive to have children, but the birth rate has continued to fall.  But as with most things in Japan, a dose of deregulation would help.  The availability of childcare facilities could be increased by easing the licensing regulations and encouraging more private-sector firms to enter this sector. There is not sufficient capacity in certified day-care centres in major urban area. Profit-making companies were allowed to enter this sector in 2000, but subject to strict licensing conditions.

In his book, “Race for the Exits”, Leonard Schoppa has a slightly different take, as he analyses this phenomenon from the point of view of social contracts.  The post-war social contract traded lifetime employment for male workers against government support for industry and private (female) provision of care for children and the elderly.  The two social groups bore a particularly heavy burden in providing for the social protection of the weak and dependent: women, who stayed home to care for their homes and families; and large firms, which committed to keeping their core workforce on the payroll even in slow times. 

Schoppa uses Albert Hirschman’s concept of exit and voice to explain their reactions.  When members of a social organization are dissatisfied with that organization, they can either leave (“exit”) or make their grievances felt (“voice”) and work to solve the problem.  Thus he argues, two losers of Japan’s social contract, enterprises and women are exiting.  Women are refraining from having babies, while enterprises are investing overseas. 

Michael Zielenziger, in his book “Shutting Out the Sun”, delves further into the behaviour of modern Japanese women, especially those known as “parasaito”.  This refers to the growing number of Japanese young women who choose career over marriage and family, now that they have greater education and job opportunities.  They live with their parents well into their 20s and 30s, and their favourite pastimes are shopping, traveling abroad on fancy vacations and living for the moment.  He refers to this as the “womb strike”!   

But he also explains that there may indeed be some more fundamental causes, as the very nature of marriage is changing in Japan.  Up until the 1970s, marriages were often arranged, and since women had little financial independence, marriages were more often mutually beneficial partnerships where duty and loyalty were more important than love. As recently as 1982, three in ten marriages were arranged.  Thus, the decline in matchmaking means that Japanese have more difficulty meeting each other, and developing relationships with the opposite sex.  This is exacerbated by the fact that young Japanese are not used to expressing romantic emotions.  They also have much less leisure time, and for males leisure time often involves drinking with colleagues.  You only have to walk the streets of Tokyo to see salarymen drinking and eating together.  At the same time, fancy restaurants and salons de the are fully of well dressed ladies gossiping together.  Zielenziger called this a “homosocial society”. 

It is thus not surprising that Zielenziger reports on a survey by condom maker Durex which concludes that Japanese ranked last among 28 countries in terms of frequency of sex.  Similarly, Pfizer sold much less Viagra than it expected.  This is confirmed by blogs like “Stippy” where people can share experiences about their lack luster sex lives.  It reports that according to a recent survey by Japan’s health ministry as many as one-third of all marriages in Japan are sexless.   


“Reforming the Labour Market in Japan to Cope with Increasing Dualism and Population Ageing”, by Randall S. Jones.  Economics Department Working Papers No.652.  OECD. 

"Race for the Exits: The Unraveling of Japan's System of Social Protection", by Leonard J. Schoppa. Cornell University Press.  2006.

"Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation", by Michael Zielenziger, 2007.  Vintage Books.

 “Sexless Japan – Really?”