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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Does Japan Have Too Many People?

Too many people on this street

Anyone who cares about Japan and its people knows that it is going through some demographic turbulence right now. A large baby-boom population entering its twilight years is clashing with those in their twenties and thirties who aren’t in any hurry to start families. Not only is the number of residents destined to fall precipitously, the ratio of taxpayers (the young) to those drawing government support (the elderly) will increasingly get out of whack, putting more pressure on the government to raise taxes, increase benefits, and PLEASE, PLEASE, DO SOMETHING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM!


The Kishida administration has initiated various programs to mitigate the impact of these changes. In a recent article, I suggested that these programs, while not awful, needed to be paired with more education. But I’m not the only commentator issuing unsolicited advice to Japan. In a June 2023 opinion piece on the popular Japan Today web site, a professor in Nagoya outlined his own investigation into the population-decline issue, determining that a hands-off approach might be for the best.


Drawing on his own June 2022 research paper, the academic compared the populations of developed countries in relation to their landmass and concluded that Japan’s decline is best described as a “correction.” Instead of having the government stem the losses, he suggested that “the answer to Japan’s population issue may simply be acceptance of the decline and adjustment of its policies and goals.” Once the population reaches 88 million, he suggests, its population-landmass ratio would be similar to Germany and—voilà!—Japan would finally be in a position to deal with societal issues without concerns over demographics. “Because Germany has a vibrant economy, strong world power status and a high standard of living, the Japanese government could consider its population as an ideal floor number for which to strive.”


I admit I’m making this paper sound more simplistic than it is. His goal is admirable, one of trying to understand if Japan can maintain its standard of living and world status despite population decline. To determine this, the author delves into some of the economic, social, and cultural aspects of Japan that have contributed to its financial and population woes. He also addresses Japan’s complex relationship with immigrants and its impact on the nation’s economic health. And there is no harm in comparing one developed nation with all others, although I think his focus on landmass ratios minimizes important nuances like arable land access, availability of natural resources, political and business outlooks, and proximity to friendly, like-minded trading partners. Despite my qualms, this research raises valuable questions: Is Japan overcrowded? Would Japan be better served by letting its population fall to some smaller, sustainable level? Is there a “best” population target to which Japan should aim?


No, there isn’t. Japan’s demographic problem is not that its population is too large for its landmass. Rather, Japan will struggle over the next few decades because its population numbers wobble too much. This is also the case for Italy, one of Germany’s own neighbors. World War II triggered baby booms among the major belligerents, as a return to national stability and economic growth made having children more palatable to civilians. Improvements in medicine and technology also played a role, as babies born in this era ended up living longer.


For these and other reasons, population charts for developed nations have bumpy hourglass shapes. It’s these wide swings that cause difficulties. When a nation is teeming with young, hardworking citizens, there are plenty of people to pay taxes, build and maintain infrastructure, defend the borders, and expand the economy. When those people get old in the absence of a new generation of workers, there is nobody left to provide those essentials. If the elder generation had been followed by one of comparable size and diligence (and if the government hadn’t overextended itself during the boom times), the economic and demographic crisis wouldn’t exist.


Japan needs to resolve the population decline, but it must do so in a way that evens out the wild fluctuations in headcounts. I don’t mean that the country must be glued to some magic 88-million number. Population counts can go up and down safely so long as the bumpiness goes away. Immigration may be a partial solution, especially in the short term. But in the long run, Japan and other nations that want to avoid the current generational turmoil need to ponder cultural expectations that allow the populace to naturally hover close to the 2.1 replacement fertility rate for developed countries, either by internal growth, or by pairing that with a sound immigration policy.


[Image Credits: はむぱん/photo-ac.com]

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