Shrinking Japan

Via the BBC:  Japan’s population falls ‘by record 244,000’ in 2013

Japan’s population declined by a record 244,000 people in 2013, according to health ministry estimates.

The ministry said an estimated 1,031,000 babies were born last year – down some 6,000 from the previous year.

Meanwhile, the number of people that died last year was 1,275,000 – a rise of around 19,000 from 2012.

Japan’s population has been shrinking for several years now. If current trends persist it will lose a third of its population in the next 50 years.

A quarter of the population is currently aged over 65 and that figure is expected to reach nearly 40% by 2060.

This is no minor issue, when one considers such factors as maintaining revenue necessary to support the retired, not to mention basic workforce questions.

On a comparative note, these types of issues are why the US could use a far more rational set of immigration policies.

FILED UNDER: Asia, World Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Stonetools says:

    Eventually, Japan will have to revisit its xenophobic immigration policies. It will probably happen after Japanese population and economy has collapsed.

  2. Scott says:

    This could be a fascinating experiment. All our economic thinking, as well as, cultural thinking revolves around a growth paradigm. The questions arise: How can you raise or maintain a standard of living while simultaneously shrinking a population? Is a sustainability model even feasible? What is the impact on a national psyche? Is any of this possible?

    I’m not even award of even any thought experiments along these lines. Not even from zero population growth advocates. I would be curious to hear from others if they have any insight to shed.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    I agree. It’s a fascinating question. I’d love to see some research.

  4. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I wonder if P D James’ novel “Children of Men” has been translated into Japanese.

  5. Tran says:

    The other question is how long-term viable your ecenomic system is if it relies on a steadily growing population. There are important physical limits on the number of humans Earth can support. Will we reach an equilibrium of births and deaths that would perhaps be incompatible with our economic system? Will we use the tried and true triad of war, famine and epidemics to control our numbers?

    And of course there are physical limits to the amount of stuff we can create, and once we exhaust it which means that our material wealth can no longer increase, what will happen to capitalism then?

  6. michael reynolds says:

    There’s the rather extreme example of Europe in plague years. Consensus seems to be that having half the population die off more or less overnight tended to raise wages. What with most of the peasants and craftsmen being dead. You can’t really be a baron without some peasants, and when you’re down to just a handful of same and you still need your wheat harvested, I guess you pay more.

    Of course Japan will have more time to adjust. Also fewer people bringing out their dead.

    (Shame on anyone who can’t guess what clip I just linked to.)

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven Taylor

    Not an issue of maintaining revenues to support retirees, but an issue of whether the workforce can produce sufficient goods and services to secure their standard of living. If productivity growth can keep pace then there’s no problem. If not then the standard of living for retirees will have to fall or Japan will have to try importing the resources they need.

  8. @Ben Wolf: Yes. But there is the issues of sufficient tax revenue to provide health care and pensions.

  9. Andre Kenji says:

    @michael reynolds:

    There’s the rather extreme example of Europe in plague years. Consensus seems to be that having half the population die off more or less overnight tended to raise wages.

    Yes, but Medieval(and Agrarian) Europe was VERY different from modern societies.

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Let’s take it to an extreme: one day in the future Japan will have 120 million retirees and one person working to support them.

    That one worker will have to supply all the medical services, manufacture all the medical supplies and equipment. She will have to provide all transportation, banking services, fuel, clothing and food they need. She will literally need to be so productive she can create and deliver everything currently produced by tens of millions of workers in the Japanese economy.

    In such a situation, is the primary difficulty acquiring tax revenue sufficient to pay that worker, or is the problem that one worker is unlikely to produce the necessary real goods and services needed? As a sovereign currency issuer the Japanese government can always create the money needed to meet its liabilities, but will there be enough stuff for the Japanese to buy?

  11. superdestroyer says:

    Japan has a very low birthrate and also have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. Someone I would guess that bring in large number of indians, Chinese, or Vietnamese would probably cause the birthrate of ethnic Japanese to actually go down more and for the life expectancy to also go down. Japan’s society probably depends on everyone being Japanese and would be quickly destroy by bringing in another culture.

    One of the overlooked issue is the high price of housing in the Kanto Plain discourages people from having children much like the high price of housing in NYC, SF, and Boston discourage people from having children.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    True. Not all that much sushi in medieval Europe.

  13. michael reynolds says:


    Japan’s society probably depends on everyone being Japanese and would be quickly destroy by bringing in another culture.

    Because the Japanese are incapable of adjusting to change? So they would just die off — even faster — if they let some Chinese in? You do realize they managed to adjust to being burned to the ground by B-29s and made the move from militarism to democracy and yet thrived, right?

    No, they’re just being rather backward racists. Now, who does that remind me of?

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    @superdestroyer: Japan’s longevity is due to:

    1) a traditional diet which is exceedingly healthy.

    2) Every Japanese receiving high quality health care.

    3) Japanese consuming considerably more health services per capita than Americans.

    They eat right and they go to a doctor for every sniffle, unlike Americans who often avoid their health system (because it sucks) and let conditions go untreated.

    But we’ll just ignore that and pretend non-existant Chinese immigrants are ruining everything because they have squinty eyes or something.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I seem to remember a lot of stories about the hardship of young adults in Japan after the lost decade; the difficulty of getting a decent job, or any job, the difficulty of getting married, or even getting sex, because no one has a stable livelihood. They may have a lot of slack to work with before a shortage of young people becomes an issue.

  16. humanoid.panda says:

    @michael reynolds: It’s a little bit more comlicate than that. In general, the plague tended to raise standards of living to the west of the Rhein, for the reasons you elaborate. However, in Eastern Europe, labor shortages were resolved by basically enslaving the peasant population.

  17. michael reynolds says:


    I wasn’t arguing that it was a good thing. I think the state-of-play now tends to downplay earlier assumptions that society was re-made wholesale by the plague. I think the current thinking is that it obviously had some lasting effect, but more in a hastening evolution sort of way rather than a revolutionary way. And yeah, obviously different strokes for different societies.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    Slightly OT: I was talking with a friend last night about Detroit–how one of the problems is that we don’t really have a good policy/tradition to deal with a shrinking city, especially one that has shrunk that much. Rather than the growth of cities, where new people usually end up settling geographically at the outskirts in rings as the city grows, a decay in population results in people leaving from all over the place, leaving a spongy web which requires a similar amount of infrastructure as it did before, but only a percentage of the population to support it.

    In short, Detroit is suffering from the urban equivalent of Mad Cow Disease.

    Japan is shrinking in population, but a lot of those quaint little hamlets out in the country have already been abandoned. Either that, or they’re only lived in during the spring/summer months, when people move out there to till the fields and harvest crops. The average age of a Japanese farmer is well up in the 60s at present. I predict the younger population will not be as willing as their grandparents to till the soil.