The owl is considered a bad omen in Vietnamese culture. Its hoot warns that someone close will fall ill or even die. As with most messengers bearing ill news, their wise council to get one’s affairs in order is often ignored. Japan has been East Asia’s owl on many issues, not least of all with its aging and declining population. How Japan has addressed these demographic crises provide valuable lessons for countries that seek national and economic security in an increasingly insecure world.
In many ways, Japan has already endured many of the consequences of demographic decline. The Japanese government has matched its security policies with broader efforts to build institutions, strengthen alliance commitments, support a rules-based global order, and avoid conflict. These successful efforts have also been matched with setbacks in improving gender equality, economic innovation, and immigration. It underwent decades of stagnation, while others enjoyed economic growth. Japan is the world’s first “hyper-aged” country, where at least 21 percent of the population is older than 65, with projections predicting 40 percent of the population will be over retirement age by 2050.
Aging populations result from longer lifespans and declining birthrates, which for Japan have declined since 2011. The fact that the Japan’s government could not head off the population crisis despite Japanese demographers forecasting a crunch since the late 1970s should have been, like the owl, a somber warning for the rest of East Asia, where populations are declining even more quickly than Japan’s. As of 2023, Japan’s fertility rate was 1.367, far below the 2.1 children per women replacement level necessary for population stability. The media has spent most of its attention on Japan, but countries in East Asia will face even more dire demographic problems because they have had less time to build a social safety net. South Korea suffers from the lowest fertility rate at 0.78, but Taiwan (1.236), China (1.70), North Korea (1.82), Russia (1.825), and the United States (1.64) share similar declining statistics. And although the world average is a healthy 2.4, 82 of the 189 countries are below 2.1, and accelerating decline in youthful countries. Political scientists have begun comparative research on the impacts of demographics and security, and such studies should be considered an early warning call for states to rethink how they prioritize their social, economic, and security needs.
Military Recruitment and Active Personnel
As I argue in my book Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacifism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century, an aging and declining population profoundly impacts a state’s ability to recruit and maintain force readiness. Regardless of concerns about demographics, the Japan Self-Defense Forces has never met its modest recruitment quota because of Japan’s unique antimilitarism ecosystem that tempers interest in joining the military.
Yet, the reluctance to join the military is universal, especially when job opportunities are created by a shrinking employment pool. While South Korea’s defense budget doubled between 2006 and 2021, reaching $50 billion and matching Japan’s defense expenditures, its force size has become increasingly strained. The shrinking recruitment pool has forced the South Korean Ministry of Defense to decrease its force size by 12.8 percent despite the rising threat of North Korea. Taiwan is also facing similar problems where the low birthrate poses a major challenge to its recruitment pool – a problem only exacerbated by the recent decision to increase compulsory military service from four months to a year. And nowhere are the theoretical consequences of a shrinking population more evident than the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where military-aged men are either leaving the country en masse or being killed in battle: Russia has lost 100,000 soldiers in the war thus far, equivalent to almost 40 percent of the entire JSDF.
Although the Russian military is dissimilar to other militaries in East Asia because of its less sophisticated technology, poor tactics, and low morale, the lesson that a nation’s most valuable military asset, its people, cannot be quickly rebuilt should not be ignored. Tanks and ammunition have infrastructure and supply chains that can be ramped up for relatively dependable production timelines. The same cannot be said for the creation of military-aged civilians.
Recent polling data has shown that the Japanese public is becoming more understanding of national security needs, but they have not shown that the public is willing to pay increased taxes or join the JSDF. The Government of Japan’s efforts to increase the percentage of women in the JSDF remains mired until underlying issues of gender inequality are addressed. Recruitment of women in South Korea also reflects broader gender issues that not only explain under recruitment, but signal broader trends on why the fertility rate remains so low. It will be difficult for all governments in Asia to convince the military-aged members of society to sacrifice blood or treasure when they are overburdened with taking care of generations above and below them.
The Economy and Taxation
Similarly, the typical government solution to economic decline is to simply grow the economy through innovation or brute strength. Yet both are hard to accomplish when the labor pool ages and declines, robbing the economy of dynamism and taxpayer dollars. The Japanese government has attributed the nation’s lingering economic downturn to the number of births and pension commitments, among other factors. Japan has higher than the OECD average on social security contributions, which will likely be the path followed by other aging countries.
In a nation with low inflation and high development, many Japanese consumers expect to receive more goods and higher quality services for the same amount of money, or even less than what they have paid over the last few decades. As a Japanese politician I spoke to recently described, this mentality has transferred to the nation’s understanding of security, where there is an acknowledgement of growing security obligations, but no one is willing to pay more for it. This consumer behavior is entirely logical because conservative capital allocation is critical for survival during three decades of economic stagnation in Japan. The Japanese government has tried to push the taxation issue onto the private sector. Still, this news has not been well received by Keidanren, who believes all members of society should contribute to national security.
Other governments in the world will find themselves similarly frustrated with citizens who lack the will or the resources to fund important but abstract goals such as power balancing and deterrence.
All things considered, Japan is doing okay, albeit with painful tradeoffs. And these pain points and tradeoffs are the news that the Japanese owl shares with the rest of the world; the time of easy growth ends with population decline.
Tom Le is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College and research associate at the PRIME Institute at Meiji Gakuin University. Le is the author of Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacifism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, June 2021). Le received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California Irvine and BAs in history and political science from the University of California Davis. He is currently a USLP delegate, Mansfield US-Japan Network for the Future fellow, and Mansfield-Luce Asia Scholars fellow.