For nearly a decade the population of Japan has been shrinking. In the last year it declined 0.18%, by about 230,000 people, not a dramatic drop for a country of 126 million people (1.). For instance, if the population decline continues at this pace (or accelerates, as is predicted) in less than four years the country will have lost the equivalent of the entire population of Yamanashi Prefecture, a bit less than the population of the U.S. state of Delaware. No big deal, right?

Well, no, there’s more to it. For instance, Japan’s elderly population (those over the age of 64) is actually increasing rapidly, having grown last year by 600,000 (1.75%), while the younger segments have declined, with those aged 15 – 64 years losing as many as the elderly gained (630,000, down 0.82%) and the youngest (aged 15 or younger) declining 182,000, or 1.15%. Even as Japan celebrates its status as the world’s longest-lived people (averaging 83.7 years combined for both sexes (2.)) its growth is being eroded by historically low birthrates.

Now imagine Yamanashi Prefecture devoid of humans, and Oita, Toyama and Iwate Prefectures devoid of children, and anyone else not well into retirement.

While this image – of a geriatric populace across entire swathes of countryside – might seem extreme, a closer look at Japan’s demographics shows that it is not that far-fetched. Another statistic: each year more than 100,000 working age Japanese leave the small towns and cities for the major metropolises in search of jobs (3.) This steady exodus of career-seekers from the countryside further exacerbates the social and economic imbalances in a land where lifelong employment was taken for granted not so long ago. Today, full-time employment is a privilege enjoyed by fewer Japanese than ever before.

(1) Statistics Bureau, Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs; (2) World Health Organization, 2015; (3) http://oecdinsights.org/

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