Periodically, when my parents mail me something, my Dad includes newspaper clippings that he deems topical or relevant to me in one way or another. This is always appreciated, since although every news outlet in the world now has an online component, these days it seems like I get almost all my information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Amidst this week’s assortment were two articles I found especially interesting. Both were published in the New York Times, and on the same subject matter–Japan’s population problem.
The first article, an op-ed by columnist Ross Douthat (Voodoo That You Do So Well), compared present-day Japan to the England imagined by P.D. James in her 1992 science fiction novel-turned-Clive-Owen-vehicle Children of Men. (I’ll be quoting from the article, but if you want source material, here is the original.)
In brief, Children of Men imagines a world in the near future, where men have become infertile and the human race is dwindling towards extinction. (The movie shifted the burden of infertility from men to women, because honestly, who would believe that Clive Owen’s boys can’t swim?) Predictably, this is a bleak world, as the darker elements of human nature emerge in the face of a slow yet implacable march towards death.
Sufficed to say, having your country compared to a sci-fi dystopia is probably never a good thing, and Children of Men seems like a particular damning choice. Douthat certainly seems to think so:
“Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and there were rashes of Internet-enabled group suicides in the last decade… The younger generation includes millions of so-called ‘parasite singles’ who still live with (and off) their parents.”
This, combined with statistics about the declining birthrate (just 1.3 children per woman, compared with around 2 per woman in the U.S. and about 2.5 per woman worldwide), paints Japan as a country sliding inexorably into the void. (As if no one in the U.S. lives with or off their parents.)
Presented neutrally, this would be a rather sobering picture, but unfortunately, that isn’t Douthat’s agenda:
“If there’s any reason for real optimism in this picture, it’s for Americans, rather than for Japanese… Our family structures are weakening, but high out-of-wedlock birthrates may be preferable to no births at all. We assimilate immigrants more slowly than we should, but at least we’re capable of assimilation. American religion can be shallow, narcissistic and divisive, but our religious institutions still supply solidarity and uplift as well.”
He ends the column by evoking the imagery of Japan’s descent into darkness:
“For all our problems, 21st-century Americans should be thankful we aren’t headed toward the same sunset as Japan.”
There you go! The American spirit, powered by schadenfreude! It’s sad, because while there are some salient points in this article, they get forgotten in the end as Douthat rushes to point fingers.
“Disintegrating family structures? Check. Millions of babies born into disadvantaged, broken homes? You betcha. Systematic discrimination against immigrants? Of course. Power-wielding religious nut-jobs that drive a wedge into the fabric of society? I’m embarrassed you even had to ask.
But hey, at least we aren’t Japan! Those guys are fuuuuuuucked. Am I right, fellas?” (High-fives self, goes back to losing his hair.)
Look, I get that it’s not easy to recast the worst aspects of American society in a positive light, but isn’t this kind of juvenile and pathetic? Instead of taking ownership of our problems and aspiring to make changes, let’s just shit on people who have it worse and be grateful it isn’t us. That actually does seem pretty American.
Never mind that Douthat’s article says nothing about the actual implications of a graying Japan, only that population is decreasing in size and increasing in age, “with grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net.” Who cares what those consequences actually are? Just hurry up and tell me about babyloids and other weird, fringe elements that clearly herald the decline of Japanese culture.
The other, less inflammatory article on the subject was a news piece written by an actual Japanese person, Hiroko Tabuchi. Reporting from a small town in Hokkaido, Tabuchi looks at the ways population decline and urban migration are effecting a community in rural Japan.
The community in question is in Yubari, a coal-mining town that has seen its population reduced by 90 percent over the last half-century. Barely 10,000 people still reside in the town, and of those remaining, nearly half are senior citizens.
What makes Yubari different from dozens of other Japanese towns experiencing similar declines is that it recently elected a 31-year-old mayor to helm the community in its fight to stay alive. As interesting as these circumstances are, instead of relating them to you, I’m going to focus on a few of the statistics quoted in the article and take this post in a different direction. (You can read Ms. Tabuchi’s piece here if you’d like.)
Last year, Japan’s population fell by a quarter-million, the largest decrease in the country’s history. By 2060, projections have the population declining by an additional one-third.
Numbers like these are, obviously, distressing. So too is the fact that, of those remaining in our hypothetical Japan of 2060, nearly half will be over 65.
Now, I’m no economist. Actually, that’s a magnificent understatement, as I’ve never taken an economics course of any kind at any level. The majority of my knowledge of the market comes from Michael Lewis books and the Economy civic in Civilization IV. Paul Krugman I am not.
So, as far as evaluating the complex economic factors associated with population decline, I’m not even going to try. (SPOILER: I actually might try a little.) Still, it bears noting–as Tabuchi does–that Japan is already shouldering the heaviest debt burden in the world, a whopping $12 trillion that is more than twice the size of Japan’s entire economy.
And as the population shrinks, the economy figures to do the same, meaning that that debt will loom larger and larger over time, especially given the amount of money the government will be forced to invest in maintaining the health of seniors who have finished contributing to economic growth.
All of this is bad. Potentially disastrous, even, if Douthat is to be believed. Yet, is population decline really such a death sentence? Is it possible that, if we can get past the troubling economic data, there might actually be some advantages to such a downward trend?
Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Jonathan Franzen–I finished Freedom earlier this month–but I think Douthat might be overstating his case. As fraught with problems as depopulation is, overpopulation is an equally troublesome trend.
Over the last 50 years, the world’s population has more than doubled, from 3 billion in 1959 to over 7 billion as of this calendar year. It took us almost 12,000 years to accumulate the first 3 billion and just a half-century to pile on 4 billion more.
While Africa and the Middle East are currently pacing the world in baby production, Asia’s population is still growing at a considerable rate, well ahead of North America and almost four-times that of Europe. Asia also happens to be home to the two most populous countries in the world–China and India–who together account for more than one out of every three people on the planet.
The problems caused by overpopulation are rather well-documented, but let’s just run through a few of them:
- Over-consumption of natural resources
- More mouths to feed, and consequently, more starving people
- Greater negative environmental impact
- Elevated competition for remaining resources
Not to mention that overpopulation in underdeveloped countries taxes infrastructure in such a way that it often decreases quality of life and increases sickness and poverty.
Many scientists agree that humans already proliferate to an unsustainable degree. Overpopulation is such an issue that some countries have sought to control their birthrate, sometimes imposing regulations that come as an affront to human rights, like China’s infamous one-child policy.
And yet, for all this, Ross Douthat feels compelled to pen a column predicting the demise of a nation that is actively moving against these trends, if not by choice.
Now, I’ll acknowledge that I’m conflating two very different things here: what’s good for the world and what’s good for Japan and the Japanese. It’s too easy to go big picture and celebrate Japan’s declining population as helping to offset growth in China, but when those changes correlate to economic gains and losses in the two countries, it’s safe to say that such silver linings will come as cold comfort to the Japanese.
It’s also too simple to overlook the human factors that are impacted by the decline. The people of Yubari profiled in Tabuchi’s article aren’t fighting for positive demographic trends–they’re fighting for their town, their home, their way of life. Undoubtedly, many of Yubari’s remaining residents are multi-generational, and some can surely trace their bloodlines in the region back centuries.
It’s heartbreaking to see the human toll that depopulation takes on ancestral homes like these. Remote settlements like Yubari are the first to feel the sting, as young people flee them in favor of the cities, a trend that has troubled many parts of Japan in recent years.
I know this better than some because I live in a town that is, in its way, not so different. Things in Kazusa are nowhere near as dire as the conditions Tabuchi describes, and yet the similarities are tough to overlook.
In the last decade, population decline in the region forced the government to undergo a bureaucratic reorganization, merging eight towns into a single municipality for administrative purposes. Virtually all the schools I teach at have rooms that sit permanently empty and unused because the buildings are now over-sized for their enrollment. Services in the area, like train lines, have been shut down.
And, without any universities or service-industry jobs to speak of, the region is fighting a losing battle to keep its young people–especially those with ambition and promise–from leaving for good.
For now, Kazusa remains a bright, lively place to live, which it seems cannot be said of Yubari. But it would be naive to assume a similar fate could never befall my adopted home.
In the 21st century, urbanization is a worldwide phenomenon, but with two-thirds of its population living in cities, Japan is well-above the global average (though still below countries like the U.S. and many Western nations). Already, some citizens have expressed concerns about what urbanization portends for Japanese culture, concerns which will only be magnified as the population shrinks.
I don’t mean to downplay the plight of Yubari, nor the cultural loss inherent in becoming a more urban society. But couldn’t some good come from all of this?
Compared to the countryside, many people still see cities as crowded, squalid places. There’s a persistent sense, I think, of rural life as the way living should be, with space and trees and clean air all around you.
Cities seem unnatural, and well, rightly so. Everything about urban life smacks of artifice and human intervention. A pastoral lifestyle appeals as a more organic way to live, as somehow closer to what was intended for us. After a weekend in the countryside, the light and noise and pollution of a city can feel like a desecration.
And yet, from an environmental standpoint, cities are actually a friendlier way to live. By cramming ourselves into small spaces, we get the most out of our infrastructure, and as a result, diminish our impact. Sprawl, not urban development, is the greater environmental threat. Keep the skyscrapers, ditch the golf courses.
So a smaller, more urban Japan is a likely boon for the local environment. But there are other ways in which such a shrink could produce positive results.
Japan is a notoriously rugged landscape, as evidenced by the steep terrace farms that staircase hillsides all over the country. Short on arable land and natural resources, Japan imports a staggering amount of its food from overseas (statistics available here), not to mention other raw materials.
It’s unlikely that the population will shrink to such a degree that domestic production will allow for true self-sufficiency (especially given the postwar shift in Japanese eating habits mentioned in the article), but depopulation will leave fewer mouths to feed, and urbanization may vacate more rural space for agricultural development.
Japan’s energy consumption could be similarly affected, as fewer people will use less power. This might allow Japan to reduce its dependence on foreign oil as well as nuclear power, which has come under siege by increased public scrutiny and disapproval in the year since the reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
As with food, it’s unrealistic to expect a modern Japan to run itself entirely on solar and wind power. But while nuclear power may continue to play a role in the country’s energy strategy, the extent of Japan’s reliance on it could certainly change for the better.
So, if the Japan of tomorrow is in fact smaller, more urban, more efficient, and less consumptive, what’s not to like? Oh, right, the impending economic collapse. That.
But is such an implosion as inevitable as Douthat makes it out to be?
While Japan’s low birthrate is troubling, it isn’t the whole story. What makes analysts so leery is the failure to replace native sons and daughters with naturalized citizens from immigrant populations.
Douthat goes out of his way to assert that Japan, unlike the U.S., is “[incapable] of assimilation,” which he attributes to “traditional Japanese suspicion of immigrants.” (Maybe if they spent more time in Arizona, they’d see the error of their ways.)
It’s true that the statistics bear out Japan’s poor record of assimilating and naturalizing immigrants. And while my experience here has been one of openness, tolerance, and curiosity, these attitudes surely do not extend to everyone. Especially for those hoping to relocate here permanently, the adjustment process can be a long and difficult one, helping to explain why over 98 percent of residents are ethnic Japanese.
But is it inconceivable that something like this could change? If, in fact, the main reason for Japan’s poor track record is the attitude of its people, that is surely subject to change. Yes, aspects of Japanese culture and identity are deeply entrenched, and digging them out would involve uprooting centuries of inertia. Any such changes will certainly be slow to take place. But before the Japanese economy collapses into insolvency under the weight of its own entitlement programs, isn’t it likely that the economic imperatives will force a change in these attitudes?
I don’t know much about free market or behavioral economics, but if Japan needs workers and isn’t producing them itself, aren’t other countries likely to step in and fill that void? Wouldn’t a country like the Philippines, where migrant remittances account for almost 9 percent of GDP, be happy to help Japan in the face of a labor deficit?
And if economic forces do compel Japan to relax its immigration and naturalization policies, isn’t that a good thing? If a failing economy and mountains of debt are what it takes for the Japanese people to embrace a more multi-cultural version of their country, well, is that such a bad outcome after all?
Look, it’s possible that Japan’s days as a world economic power are ending, if they aren’t over already. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, certainly, but wasn’t it sort of inevitable? Objectively, Japan was always an unlikely economic juggernaut: a small island nation, poor in natural resources. If anything, it is a credit to the Japanese people that the country ever occupied such a prominent position in world economic affairs. (I know, I know, the U.S. had something to do with it, too.)
But if anything, the Japanese ought to be optimistic, because they have history on their side. This country has a well-deserved reputation for reinvention, and whether you’re talking about the modernization of the Meiji period or the demilitarization of the postwar era, Japan’s resilience and adaptability have always been among its greatest strengths.
So if, as Ross Douthat contends, depopulation is the next great crisis facing Japan, perhaps it would be wiser of us to celebrate it as the opportunity for another rebirth rather than heralding it as the arrival of death.