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[ISHES Newsletter #15]Japan's Challenges: Depopulation and Aging

2019/10/25 11:53:47


ISHES Newsletter #15
October 25, 2019

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Copyright (c) 2019

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan


Dear Readers,

Welcome to our 15th issue of the ISHES Newsletter!
In this October 2019 issue, you will find the following articles:

- Japan's Challenges: Depopulation and Aging

Japan is on the leading edge of experiencing depopulation and the super-aging of society. What kinds of situations and challenges are arising? This article looks at the very different issues currently facing big cities versus smaller regional municipalities in Japan.

- A new article from the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom

This time we provide an article from a column by Yoshifumi Taguchi, entitled "Tao Management: No.1 TAI-DOH," which has been uploaded on the web.

- Recommended articles from the JFS Newsletter on sustainability issues in Japan

Super typhoon Hagibis hit Japan straight on in October, causing serious destruction along several rivers and highlighting the difficulties of flood control. In this issue, we revisit large-scale and effective flood control systems from long ago, filled with lessons for today.


Japan's Challenges: Depopulation and Aging


By the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES)

Japan's population tripled during the twentieth century to more than 120 million over the course of only a hundred years. After a long rising trend it peaked in December 2004 and then began to decrease. Since then it has been declining slowly, but if no action is taken it is expected to decrease to just one-third of the current level over the next hundred years.

Along with this depopulation, the rapid aging of society has been a major trend in Japan. What are the consequences and issues associated with these trends? What actions are needed in response? In this article we look at the situation facing Japan, a country on the leading edge of depopulation and aging, drawing on information from books such as "Mirai-No-Nenpyo" (Future Chronology) by Masashi Kawai.


Japan experienced its first baby boom from 1947 to 1949, with 2.6 million annual births. A second baby boom occurred from 1971 to 1974 when the first baby-boomers became parents and annual births were at 2.1 million.

A third baby boom was expected to occur around the year 2000, but births actually declined instead of increasing. One factor was that people did not or could not get married because of a lack of income due to an economic recession. Another factor was a change of values as lifestyles became more diverse and more people accepted the idea of staying single for life, or a couple being childless.

Annual births dropped below 1 million in 2016, and media recently reported estimates that births would drop below 900,000 in 2019, earlier than the government's forecast. Some projections say that births in Japan could drop to about 550,000 in 2065 and 300,000 in 2115.

The total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman will bear during her lifetime. It needs to be at least at the replacement level of 2.07 to avoid a population decline, but has been below that since 1974 in Japan, and was only 1.42 in 2018.

Junko Edahiro, President of the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, participates in a Japanese government committee on Revitalization of Communities, People and Jobs (under the Cabinet Secretariat). One of its studies concluded that Japan's birth rate would rise to 1.8 if the expectations of the younger generation for marriage and childcare could be fulfilled. The birth rate of married women is currently over 2.0 and it has been there since the 1970s. The government believes that the national birth rate will recover to 1.8 if economic and housing benefits can be provided to encourage families to have the number of children they wish to have.

The number of births is determined by multiplying the birth rate by the number of women of childbearing age. In 2020, one out of every two women in Japan will be age 50 or older, so the number of women at the main childbearing age of 25 to 39 will decrease significantly in the future. Even if the birth rate improves, births are expected to decrease because the number of women of childbearing age will decrease.

Super-aged society

If people aged 65 or older exceed 7% of the total population, the United Nations considers it an "aging society," over 14% an "aged society" and over 21% a "super-aged society." Japan became an aging society in 1970 and an aged society in 1994, and it is currently a super-aged society, with one quarter of the population being seniors (65 or older).

France took 115 years to transition from an aging society to an aged society, Sweden 85 years, the United States 72 years, the United Kingdom 46 years, and Germany just 40 years. It took only 24 years for Japan to make the transition, and Japan now faces challenges due to the rapid increase in the need for seniors' facilities such as nursing homes. A super-aged society is also a society with a high level of deaths. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, it reportedly takes several days to a week to schedule a cremation. In the future, a serious shortage of cremation services and cemeteries is anticipated.

More and more people are staying single in Japan. In 2035, one-third of men and one-fifth of women are expected to stay single for life, resulting in a country dominated by unmarried people. In Japan, it has been the norm for couples to have children after getting married, so this trend is also expected to affect the numbers of births.

Japan in the future is also expected to have more one-person households. In 2015, they accounted for 34% of the total, more than the 26% of households that consisted of married couples with children. Since the average life expectancy of women is higher than that of men, the number of elderly women living alone after the loss of their husbands is expected to increase.

As society ages, the number of dementia patients is also expected to increase. In 2026, they are expected to exceed seven million across Japan. As the population declines, the number of young people who donate blood will also decline. This could mean a shortage in blood services. There will also be a smaller number of facilities such as department stores, banks and nursing homes, which require a certain size of population base to survive. The number of vacant houses will also increase. About one house in every three in Japan is expected to be vacant in 2033.

Urban and rural issues

The aging issue is in fact an urban issue. Currently, young people in rural areas tend to move to cities, resulting in a higher aging rate in rural areas. But this expected to shift, with the urban areas being mainly where aging happens from now on. Tokyo is expected to have 4.12 million elderly people in 2040, an increase of about 1.44 million from 2010.

When the number of elderly people increases and the number of workers decreases, the burden on social security systems will increase. Huge costs will be incurred in transforming cities that have been built with a focus on corporate activities and young people into more elderly-friendly environments. On the other hand, the decreasing numbers of workers and tax revenues could mean that government services will have to be cut, adding an extra burden on top of the rise of social insurance expenditures.

If that happens, the time may come when young people attempt to get out of Tokyo, while rural areas, which have supplied young people to Tokyo for years will receive them back. New York City in the 1970s provides an example. When the city was suffering from financial collapse around a million residents moved out. Similarly, a large exodus out of Tokyo to rural areas may happen.

On the other hand, the very survival of some towns in rural areas could become a big issue due to rapid depopulation. It is important not only for these communities but also for the nation as a whole to sustain rural towns and villages. Japan currently has some 900 cities, towns, and villages that have a population of 30,000 or less. The total number of people in these areas accounts for just 8% of the nation's population, although these regions account for 48% of the land area. In the absence of measures that might enable this 8% of the population to continue living there, about the half of the national land area could end up deserted and under-managed.

We need to consider how to support rural areas for the good of the whole country, and avoid overconcentration of population in Tokyo. Local economies need to maintain local circulation so that people can continue living in these areas. One of the keys is to create a flow of people from Tokyo to rural areas through measures like job creation and enhancement of facilities and services so that young people can get married, give birth, and raise children there.

Toward smart depopulation

When it comes to the population issue, we need to question the importance of focusing only on the number of people. Here are examples from three countries, cited from "Thinking in Systems: A Primer," by Donella H. Meadows.

In Romania, the government decided in 1967 that it had to increase the population, so it criminalized abortion for women under age 45. Right after that, the birth rate increased three-fold. Then resistance to the policy began, and the birth rate gradually dropped back to its previous level. Due to dangerous and illegal abortions, the maternal mortality rate tripled, which resulted in many unwanted children being sent to orphanages. The resistance ended up having huge costs for the country.

Around the same time in Hungary, the government found that one of the reasons for small family size was cramped housing, so it introduced incentives to provide bigger residences for bigger families. Because housing was not the only reason for the low birth rate, the policy achieved only partial success. Even so, the Hungarian government had much greater success than the Romanian policy, and was able to avoid the tragic results Romania experienced.

In the 1930s, the Swedish government examined the respective goals of the government and the people and decided that both sides were in agreement that the important thing was not family size but the quality of child-rearing. The government and the people were able to take the same stance on population issues and set common goals. For example, every child should be wanted and nurtured, no child should suffer materially, and every child should be able to receive a good education and healthcare services. In the ensuing decades, Sweden's birth rate has gone up and down several times without causing a panic, because the country's focus is on more important goals than just the number of the people.

If it is difficult to increase population or to sustain a certain level of birth rate, it becomes more important to have "smart depopulation," which means decreasing the population wisely and with minimum pain. If the population is going to decline anyway, we need to consider what kinds of communities we want to build, what we should reduce, and what we should protect. People should not just give up, knowing that the population will decline, but take the reins and think about what the community should be like so that people can continue to live with pride, even with a lower population.

To realize smart depopulation, two things should be done. One is to control depopulation as much as possible. The other is to build communities that can accommodate a declining population.

There are four crucial points to control depopulation: (1) increase the number of births, (2) increase the number of people newly relocating to depopulating areas, (3) increase the retention rate of arrivals, and (4) increase the number of people returning to their hometowns. What is important is not just an increase in the population numbers, but also ensuring that people can live a good life whether they are young children born here, people who have moved here from elsewhere, or former residents returning home. All of this leads to community revitalization.

Another thing to do is to promote community-building in ways that are well-adapted to the reality of depopulation. To do so, leaders need to set out concrete ideas and involve residents by providing opportunities to discuss realistic measures. Local residents need to think about and take ownership of the issues, looking at how to attract new residents, how to increase the economic circulation within the local community, and how to locally generate energy for local use, etc. It is also very important to support these people and increase their numbers.

To take depopulation calmly and build local communities and a nation where people can live a good life, people need to take the initiative and set common goals. We hope to see more progress in the future to build a happy and sustainable society and rise above the challenges of depopulation and aging of society.


New articles from the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom


In this section we introduce the latest articles posted on the website of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom.

This link brings you to an article from a column by Yoshifumi Taguchi, entitled "Tao Management: No.1 TAI-DOH."

This article explains that it is only by direct experience that people can realize a truth. We hope you enjoy reading it.

Tao Management: "No.1 TAI-DOH"


Recommended articles from the JFS Newsletter on sustainability issues in Japan


In this regular section of each issue of the ISHES Newsletter, we recommend past articles from Japan for Sustainability newsletters. The non-profit JFS was active from August 2002 until July 2018, sending out information to the world with the aim of moving society in Japan and the world toward being more sustainable and happier.


The typhoon that made a direct hit on the Japanese islands in mid-October wrought severe damage in many places, caused rivers to breach, and forced us to think about the challenges of flood control. In this issue we introduce you to a flood control system in the Kofu Basin in Yamanashi Prefecture designed centuries ago. Although it was built before the age of airplanes and helicopters, its builders were able to envision the dynamics of the entire watershed. They created an effective system of controlling floods using a variety of structures and a multi-layered approach, all on a large scale. Are there any hints there for us today?

Learning from the Past: Traditional Flood Control Systems in Japan's Kofu Basin


We hope you enjoyed reading our newsletter.
Thank you for your kind support.

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society

*The Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) is an organization based in Japan that is working to build a happy and sustainable society. To this end, we need to think about happiness, the economy and society together by learning from, analyzing, and thinking about theories and cases in Japan and around the world on what happiness is and what kind of economy and society will create and support happiness.


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