Book Review: Japan’s Population Implosion

“Japan’s Population Implosion: The 50 Million Shock” sets out a stark and clearly-argued warning to the country, placing its steady depopulation and regional decline at the heart of debates about a myriad of issues facing the Japanese nation.

What happens when a country’s people cease having enough children to replace themselves? When the ranks of the elderly population swell to overcome those of the young? If a nation of 127 million people is whittled down to less than half that number?

These are some of the questions Japan’s Population Implosion: The 50 Million Shock sets out to answer. As one of the first comprehensive works on the subject in the English language, it presents a groundbreaking analysis of Japan’s rapidly aging population of 127 million, which is predicted to contract rapidly in the coming decades. In explaining not only why Japan’s population is declining, but also what can be done to avert the emerging crisis, a picture emerges that is just as shocking, intriguing, and relevant to the lives of everyday citizens as it is to policymakers and academics.

Edited by Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and former editor-in-chief at the Asahi Shimbun, the book is a collaboration between 14 authors, 13 contributors, and 23 interviewees across business, academia, and public service. It traces the evolution of Japan’s low birthrate and the accompanying aging of the population across the full spectrum of Japanese society, presenting a multifaceted view of the impact on Japan’s past, present and future neatly organized into 11 thematic chapters. Undoubtedly due to the large number of people involved, the scope of the book is very broad, with topics ranging from Japan’s burgeoning public finance woes and erratic population policy to the legacy of inadequate land planning and the erosion of the country’s infrastructure. However, at only 235 pages the book is also focused, keeping readers engaged by managing to be informative yet brisk, detailed but never dull.

The opening chapter is a microcosm of the book’s larger argument that population decline is both intimately tied to the multitude of problems facing Japan today, and an existential crisis in its own right, of a severity which Japan has not seen since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The authors boldly assert that “of Japan’s numerous failures over the past 30 years…the failure of crafting an effective population policy is perhaps the greatest failure of all,” citing the compounding nature of the problem, which has trapped Japan in a series of negative chain reactions, stunting its economic growth, eroding its geopolitical influence, undermining its social contract, and hollowing out entire regions. They warn that Japan has no time to lose if it wishes to avoid a catastrophic collapse that would not only engulf the entire country but also place the wider global economy at risk. The sense of crisis is palpable and lends the book a necessary sense of immediacy that draws the reader in from the very first pages.

Population decline is both intimately tied to the multitude of problems facing Japan today, and an existential crisis of a severity which Japan has not seen since the Meiji Restoration

The opening chapter also wastes no time in highlighting what the authors believe to be a central cause of the chronically low fertility driving Japan to the brink of disaster, namely “the sense of fatigue engendered in Japanese workers, especially young workers with long commutes, extensive overtime, and ambiguous personnel evaluation systems.” It is this malaise and the social structures sustaining it that, according to the authors, play a key role in delaying and often deterring marriage and childbirth. A convincing assertion is made that Japan’s birthrate, and thereby its fortunes, will not recover without fundamental reform that frees young Japanese from this oppressive system while reorienting society to provide them with the time and financial leeway to marry and have children. The argument is powerful one, likely to resonate with the experiences of almost anyone who has come into contact with Japanese corporate culture. This makes the omission of a dedicated chapter on the subject all the more disappointing, particularly in light of the relentless lobbying by Japanese businesses to stymie reform. While this is a missed opportunity, the book nonetheless effectively advocates for the elimination of overtime, the adoption of flexible working styles, and the institution of equal pay for equal work, the combination of which would sum up to fundamental labor reform in Japan.

As the book progresses, it slowly sketches out the contours of Japan’s future collapse and then demonstrates that in many parts of Japan, this collapse has actually already begun. The key is the deterioration of what the authors have termed “life infrastructure,” the core public and private services people depend on to lead healthy, modern, and productive lives. The argument is simple: as communities shrink, the number of people utilizing any given service drops, reducing the viability until providers, whether private businesses or local governments, are forced to scale back or even eliminate operations altogether, further exacerbating the outflow of people. The authors present ample evidence that throughout Japan shopping districts are being shuttered, train services reduced or eliminated, schools closed, residential vacancies increasing, and necessary building renovations foregone. Most striking is that while this change has so far been most prominent in Japan’s peripheral regions, the deterioration is already well underway in parts of Japan’s major metropolitan areas including Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. This upends the conventional wisdom that Tokyo will be spared from decline, while reinforcing the idea of Japan being trapped in a series of negative chain reactions.

Japan’s birthrate, and thereby its fortunes, will not recover without fundamental reform that frees young Japanese from the oppressive employment system

That theme of a slow-moving collapse is a recurring one throughout the book, tying Japan’s problems together into a rich tapestry of decay. There is the ticking timebomb of Japan’s national debt, already exceeding 200 percent of the country’s GDP, and fueled by an annual budget deficit of over 33 percent; the insincerity of presenting a rise in the consumption tax to 10 percent as a means of eliminating the budget deficit, when in fact a tax rate estimated to be in excess of 25 percent would be needed to stabilize public finances at current spending levels. The increasing number of both unmarried and socially withdrawn adults, who could easily become the next generation of elderly to die in isolation. The chronically low labor productivity, which puts even large Japanese corporations at a significant disadvantage to their OECD counterparts, dragging down economic growth, and exacerbating the culture of overtime. The continued over-concentration in the Tokyo metropolitan area, which reduces the economic vitality of Japan’s regions, while putting an ever-greater concentration of Japan’s political, economic, and human resources at risk in the event of a major earthquake. These, along with the book’s multitude of other data points, paint a portrait of a nation seemingly oblivious to the fact that it is on the brink of disaster.

Thankfully, the book balances its bleak portrayal of the status quo with an optimism that something can – and indeed must – be done. Japan’s birthrate may be low, but Japanese couples still aspire to have on average 2.4 children. The number of unmarried adults in their 30s is high, at 47.3 percent for men, and 34.5 percent for women, but over 50 percent of those surveyed indicated a desire to get married if they had the time to find a partner. Japan’s support for families and children may be insufficient at only 1.35 percent of GDP, less than half the ratio of European nations with high birthrates, but that budgetary allocation could be doubled with only a minimal impact on Japan’s fiscal situation. Japan suffers from excessive urban and rural sprawl, but creative approaches to city planning have already shown promise in halting decline in certain areas. Pundits warn of a silver democracy in which the vested older classes oppress the young, yet surveys demonstrate a high degree of untapped intergenerational solidarity and resolve. Even in regards to immigration, the authors point to signs that Japanese policy is slowly evolving in response to the demands of globalization. The message is clear; while the situation is dire, the potential for catastrophe real, and the window for nipping the problem in the bud long since past, resolute action based on a clear and accurate understanding of the reality facing Japan by its people can salvage the situation and ensure that the Japan of tomorrow is stronger and more prosperous than the Japan of today.

It is both a damning indictment of the status quo, and a stirring call to action for both Japan’s government and its people.

It is rare for an argument for reform to be articulated so compellingly while also remaining broadly accessible to the average reader. Aside from the lack of a chapter on the role of labor, if there is one criticism that could be reasonably leveled at the book, it is that in spite of having so much to say about creating a society in which there are more children, there is a surprising lack of discussion as to how existing and future policies would impact those children. It would have been fascinating, for example, if the authors had explored the potential role of the education system in reinforcing the mindset of output (success) being directly proportional to input (time), and how this aids in sustaining Japan’s unproductive corporate culture centered around overtime. Nonetheless, this is a minor omission that does not diminish from what is an otherwise exceptionally well-reasoned book.

Put simply, Japan’s Population Implosion deserves to be read by anyone with a modicum of interest in Japan or Asia Pacific regional affairs, and indeed by everyone living in Japan whose life will be impacted and shaped by these issues. It breaks down the complexity surrounding Japan’s depopulation crisis and presents it in a way that is accessible and transparent, while making a strong case that depopulation is not merely one problem among many, but the key to understanding the principal structural deficiencies afflicting Japan today. It is both a damning indictment of the status quo, and a stirring call to action for both Japan’s government and its people. Japan can, must, and will change. However, the question remains whether this change will be prompt, decisive, and effective, or slow, reactive, and held hostage to circumstance. One can only hope that the clear-eyed analysis provided by the authors will help push Japan towards pursuing the proactive forward-looking population policy it needs.

Japan’s Population Implosion is available to buy in hardcover and Kindle editions from both Amazon Japan and Amazon USA.

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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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