Shinzo Abe and Japan’s Demographic Reckoning

On January 1, 2018 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the nation via the customary Prime Minister’s New Year’s Reflection statement. He used the opportunity to highlight that in this year, the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Meiji Restoration that began Japan’s drive toward modernization, Japan once again faces an existential crisis requiring the full attention and energy of the nation. That crisis, according to Abe, is Japan’s aging society and low birth rate, and he has framed it as the most significant challenge to the survival of the nation since the mid-nineteenth century. Abe went on to repeat this message in a speech on the floor of the National Diet on January 4,, 2018.

Given the gravity and importance that the Prime Minister attaches to this issue, it is important to evaluate the severity of the challenge facing Japan, previous government attempts to address the issue, and the feelings of the Japanese public, before delving into the probable root cause of the problem and the likely effectiveness of the government’s proposals to address it.

Abe is correct in highlighting the existential nature of the threat confronting Japan, and hearing the problem addressed so bluntly from Japan’s highest office is long overdue. Japan’s aging population is the result of decades of low and falling fertility, with the birthrate today standing at a mere 1.41 children per woman according to the United Nations. The Japanese population peaked in 2010 at around 128 million and began falling around 2015. If fertility continues to hover at current levels, the Japanese population is projected to shrink from 127 million today to as low as 89 million by 2060. More importantly, by 2060 the working age population will collapse, declining by as much as 43 percent, while the population over 60 will explode to account for as much as 49 percent of the population. In that scenario the number of adults over 75 will come to exceed the number of children and young adults under 19 by a factor of 2:1. Clearly, if nothing is done the consequences for Japan’s economy, society, and national security are likely to be nothing short of catastrophic.

The issue of Japan’s low birthrate first gained national attention in 1990, with what is commonly known as the “1.57 shock,” when Japan’s birthrate fell to what was, at the time, its lowest level in recorded history, setting off a national conversation on the future of the country. In the interceding 28 years, government after government has undertaken a veritable laundry list of over a dozen plans, policies, and measures aimed at reversing the low birthrate. Some features of these efforts include attempts to get men to shoulder a larger burden of work in the home sphere, more generous parental leave, addressing the shortage of childcare in cities, and most critically helping people to achieve work-life balance. The result of almost three decades of policy speaks for itself. Between 1990 and 2005 the birthrate actually declined from 1.57 to 1.32, before rebounding slightly to 1.41 in 2010. Unfortunately, it is safe to say that Japanese government efforts so far have been nothing short of a resounding failure.

That failure is made all the more striking when one considers how the Japanese people feel about the issue. Surveys of Japanese women have repeatedly suggested they want to have more children, with the ideal number of children in the most recent survey averaging out to 2.60. Furthermore, there seems to be a general consensus that the Japanese people want an employment system fostering greater work-life balance and a social system with greater support for families raising children. Japan has what is, at first glance, a very generous system of parental leave, entitling new parents to up to 24 months of paid leave combined with free primary and secondary education, and universal healthcare. Data from other developed countries with higher fertility rates would generally suggest that under such conditions, an increase in birthrates should be achievable.

The real reason government efforts to increase the birthrate have been so ineffective is that for all the talk of helping its citizens achieve a work-life balance compatible with child rearing, Japan’s corporate culture is still plagued by long hours so extreme that work related death or suicide is common. In 2015 alone, as many as 2,159 deaths were linked to overwork, and the nation was galvanized by the tragic work-related suicide of a young woman at Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising firm. Yet for all the outrage, the Abe government’s response, the 2017 “Action Plan for Work-style Reform,” did little more than introduce a soft cap on overtime set at 100 hours per month, the very same level that pushed the young woman at Dentsu to take her own life. A society and government with so little regard for the lives and welfare of individual workers cannot be said to be making work-life balance achievable in any meaningful way. The reality then, is that previous efforts toward increasing the birthrate have done little more than tiptoe around the margins, targeting the low hanging fruit, while ignoring the real issue of work culture.

Taken in the context of Japan’s repeated failure to address the work-related causes of the low birth rate, the Abe government’s newfound commitment to a demographic renaissance for Japan deserves a healthy dose of skepticism. While Abe’s New Year’s message makes bold statements on the need to “invest boldly in (our) children’s future,” “dramatically reform the social security system into one oriented to all generations,” and “create a society that provides opportunities for all people,” it is short on specifics, merely suggesting that the 2017 election manifesto pledges of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party be implemented in a timely manner. These pledges include making preschool free by 2020, improving access to daycare, and increasing spending on social welfare initiatives for families with children. While these are all important steps in their own right, by once again ignoring labor issues, they equate to little more than the same incrementalism that has brought the current crisis to a head. Achieving the kind of demographic transformation that Abe advocates in his speech will require a clean break with past policy that would entail a willingness to confront big business on overwork.

The low birth rate and the resulting aging society are easily the greatest challenge facing Japan today, and if left unaddressed could have consequences even rivaling those of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Resolving this issue will likely require one of the greatest restructurings of Japanese society since that time, and it can no longer be pushed off, ignored, or wished away. Abe deserves credit for recognizing this and announcing that it will be a top priority for his government.

This recognition however, must be paired with a commitment to the kind of real and difficult labor reform necessary to pull Japan out of its demographic tailspin. Without such a commitment, history will record Abe as just another in a long line of Japanese prime ministers who paid lip service to the issue while continuing to allow Japan’s slow-motion slide into the abyss.

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Jonathan Webb is a researcher working with the Nippon Institute for Research Advancement as well as a lecturer and PhD candidate at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance. His current research is focused on the impact of demographic change and low birthrates on national security issues. He has previously been employed as a crisis simulation assistant at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in 2018, and as a speaker liaison for the Shangri-La Dialogue at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2017. Prior to 2017 he worked as a strategic coordinator for global business operations at Hitachi Ltd.

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