Japan: The societal impact of low birth rate

The population of Japan, a nation of islands known for hotel rooms that sometimes consist of a sleeping capsule and little else, has been shrinking. The overcrowding suggested by capsule hotels and hard-to-urbanize mountainous areas would seem to line up with a country that’s wary about creating more people than can comfortably live there.

But modern Japan remains more or less the same geographical size it’s always been. So why, for the first time since the government started monitoring the country’s birth rate over 100 years ago, has Japan’s population recently plummeted by more than 300,000 people? And why does Japan have its lowest birth rate in 50 years, which The Japan Ageing Research Centre in Tokyo predicted a few years back to fall to 1.16 births per female in 2020?

Surely that kind of drop isn’t the result of mere spatial scarcity.

The answer, according to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, has more to do with growing economic scarcity – as in a lack of good, reliable full-time jobs for Japanese men, who are still generally expected to provide the bulk of economic support to families.

Anne Allison, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, told the magazine, “The birth rate is down, even the coupling rate is down. And people will say the number-one reason is economic insecurity.”

Japan, with an unemployment rate below 3 percent, suddenly has a lack of good jobs?

If that can be the case with other economic powers, such as the United States, where the Gig Economy has become the new normal amid historically low unemployment levels, why not Japan?

While it’s true that, beginning with the post-war years, Japan boasted a tradition of people with full-time jobs, these days 40 percent of the population works temporary or part-time jobs that pay poorly and don’t include benefits. And only about 1 in 5 of those workers make the leap to full-time jobs during their professional lives.

Even if a man and women who are both working part-time jobs were to want to get married and have children, their families would likely oppose those decisions; because of their part-time work status, the man and woman could be considered failures for life. (This may account in part for the invention of a Japanese board game, called “The Hellish Game of Life,” in which people who don’t secure a regular job struggle for the remainder of the contest.)

For some, Japan’s low birth rate actually makes good economic sense. In a guest piece for The Japan Times, writer William Collis puts forth the argument that the nation’s declining population numbers might give Japan some kind of advantage in grappling with the current artificial intelligence revolution.

With fewer workers needed to perform tasks that will become increasingly automated, Collis suggests, the resulting thinned-out workforce will place upward pressure on wages, which should lead to a better quality of life. But then, higher labor costs would mean that Japan’s goods would cost more to buy, which could hurt trade.

Still, Collis continues, studies indicate that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will result in a loss of “between 30 percent to 60 percent of today’s jobs”. Which doesn’t make a reduced birth rate look so bad.

Until, that is, one considers the following: As life expectancies increase worldwide, the costs of caring for an elderly population will also rise, creating a greater per-capita financial burden. And there’s also the matter of national security since a shrinking populace translates into fewer people to staff Japan’s military.

In the end, though, Collis says this about Japan’s population dilemma: “I do not believe that a shrinking population is an unequivocal good.”

That’s because, he adds, that a shrinking populace poses “cultural risks” to Japan.

Yes, amid all of the talk about statistics and changes brought on by technology, the matter of raising and sustaining families remains a very human and cultural one.

And already, says The Atlantic, “[t]he administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has turned some attention to the rise of bad jobs in Japan,” though critics say much more needs to be done.

Economic and societal shifts notwithstanding, the human spirit proves indomitable from age to age, particularly in nations with long and rich histories such as Japan. Those who wish to start a family will likely find a way to do so. Those who wish to protect their assets now will be well positioned for beginning a family when they decide the time is right.