Over the past few months, I have published two articles in The Diplomat that explore some of the issues related to the population decline Japan has started to experience over the past couple of years. Whether or not this is a problem that needs a solution is open to debate. Population decline has many benefits, but the fact is that population decline in Japan will also present problems—and very significant ones—as both the Japanese government and its people respond to a very different demographic environment.
It is interesting to take a look at some of the consequences of population decline that may lie ahead for Japan, particularly since, while Japan may be at the forefront of this trend, it is only one of many countries that will experience population decline over the coming decades. In East Asia, Korea has a total fertility rate (TFR)—estimated at 1.23 for 2012—that is roughly similar to Japan’s and China’s TFRs, which are estimated at 1.39 and 1.55 for 2012 respectively. All of these are well below the replacement rate of 2.1 that is needed to simply maintain the current population size. This problem is not limited to East Asia; many European countries have very low TFRs and even parts of the developing world are experiencing declining TFRs.
Because Japan is at the forefront of this international trend, it is useful to explore how population decline is already affecting the country, and a particularly good place to look is rural areas, which already are experiencing depopulation often at a striking rate. The reason rural areas are of particular importance is that in addition to low birth rates, they also tend to experience significant outflows of young people who move to urban areas or abroad. As John Knight, an anthropologist at Queen’s University in Belfast has noted, rural depopulation in Japan is partly driven by young people being drawn to the life, education, and employment opportunities of urban areas even as they are eager to escape rural areas, which they perceive as offering little in terms of social activities and employment (this is not necessarily the case, as there are many rural areas in which there are large factories that provide jobs, but it is a common perception among the youth).
In his research, Knight has explored the environmental consequences of rural depopulation. One of these is that as rural areas experience population decline, wildlife (both animal and plant) begins to move back into areas from where it had previously been displaced by human occupation. In many rural areas, particularly in mountain villages, animals such as bears have moved into populated areas where they may pose a risk to residents. Bears also present problems in farming areas and it is not uncommon to find farmers erecting electrified fences to keep them out of their fields, thus generating expenses related to protecting crops that until recently were not necessary. Knight argues that encroachment by wild animals may further deter people from remaining in the rural parts of Japan.
A drive around farm villages in Japan often brings one face-to-face with one of the more significant consequences of depopulation—abandoned property. An increasing number of houses, and their associated land, are left unoccupied when the elder resident dies. Younger family members have moved to the cities and are unable or unwilling to return. As a result, buildings are left empty and become very difficult to maintain, with weeds and other brush rapidly growing up around the property.
Indeed, the growth of the elder population represents one of the more serious challenges associated with a low TFR and depopulation in Japan (or anywhere). The increasingly inverted structure of Japan’s population pyramid, with fewer young people than old people, means that it will be very difficult to generate the tax revenues necessary to pay for the healthcare needs of the elderly. Japan’s elder population—those over 65—is currently around 25% of the total. In rural areas, it is not uncommon to find towns in which 35% or more of the population is over 65. As the elderly population grows to its anticipated size of more than 1/3 of the total national population, the financial burden of healthcare in Japan will become erroneous, and there could very well be a shortage of labor in the healthcare industry.
Some of the more esoteric effects of population decline in rural areas are the problems it creates for local Buddhist temples. In Japan, temples are supported by a parish of local residents who pay for the upkeep of the temple and provide for the priest and his family (although many priests also have to supplement their income with other types of work). Depopulation has meant many temples have seen significant decreases in the size of their parish and, consequently, their level of income.
In some cases, income becomes insufficient to maintain a temple, forcing temples to merge. These mergers take place even as the workload of priests has increased because the primary work of Buddhist priests in Japan is to conduct rituals for the dead. A larger elderly population means more funerals and a lack of young people means fewer family members to take care of family grave sites, leaving them to the local priest to upkeep.
Satsuki Kawano, an anthropologist at the University of Guelph, has written an important book called Nature’s Embrace: Japan’s Aging Urbanites and New Death Rites that looks at how some urban (note that these issues are not limited to rural areas) Japanese are developing new approaches to caring for the dead that require little or no human involvement to perform rituals for deceased ancestors. As Kawano notes, some of those who have chosen to follow these new paths to dealing with death have done so in order to avoid asking their descendants to provide perpetual care of their ancestral spirit, which is the normal pattern among Japanese.
Kawano’s work illustrates that Japanese are innovative and will find new ways to manage life with fewer people and will create new cultural patterns to address the changes that will emerge as the population continues to decline.
Many have argued that a smaller population in Japan is a good thing, because the country is currently very crowded—indeed, many Japanese feel this way. Whether or not this is true, it is certain that Japan will face major challenges in responding to the pragmatic issues of managing and maintaining an infrastructure built by and for a much larger population, as well as issues such as shifting economic patterns and workforce composition as a result of a changing age structure of the society. The Japanese people will also be forced to create new cultural patterns that respond to the demographic and economic changes that are occurring.
Additionally, declining populations in the countries of East Asia will be of immense importance in shaping the political and economic dynamics of the region. It is worth noting that up through the end of World War II, women in Japan were awarded by the government for having many children. The reason for this was to provide sufficient numbers of soldiers to fight for the Japanese Empire.
Today, the Japanese have no desire for empire and expansion, but the fact remains that population is a variable that remains central to how Japan, and its neighbors, will interact and respond to tensions, such as the current problems surrounding disputed territory in East Asia. And how people and governments will respond to significant loss of population—emotionally, culturally, and in terms of policy—remains very unpredictable.
John W. Traphagan, Department of Religious Studies and Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.