Japan’s population is shrinking at an alarming rate

Japan has 512,000 fewer people this year than last, according to an estimate released on by the country's welfare ministry, providing the latest sign of Japan's increasing demographic challenges.

Births in the country — which are expected to drop below 900,000 this year — are at their lowest figure since 1874, when the population was about 70 per cent smaller than its current 124 million.

The total number of deaths, on the other hand, is increasing. This year, the figure is expected to reach almost 1.4 million, the highest level since the end of World War II, a rise driven by the country's increasingly elderly population.

Japan’s birthrate has fallen to 1874 levels.Credit:E+

That gap between births and deaths has put Japan in a demographic squeeze. As the number of births go down, there are fewer young people entering its workforce. That means fewer people to replace retiring workers and support them as they age, a situation that poses a serious threat to Japan's economic vitality and the security of its social safety net.

Japan is not the only country facing the problem of how to cope with a shrinking society. It's not even the country with the lowest birthrate: That title goes to South Korea. And other countries — from China to the United States — also face declining birthrates, which could spell trouble down the road.

But Japan is the world's grayest nation: Almost 28 per cent of its residents are over 65.

Japan has had some time to address the effects of its declining population: The country has been consistently shrinking since 2007. That year, the country's population dipped by around 18,000 people. Since then, however, the losses have rapidly accelerated, crossing the half-million mark this year for the first time. Across the nation, whole villages are vanishing as young people choose not to have children or move to urban areas in search of better employment opportunities.

Japan is looking to robots to help ease the impact of a labour shortage.Credit:Bloomberg

There's no end to the decline in sight: The government estimates the population could shrink by around 16 million people — or nearly 13 per cent — over the next 25 years.

In response, Japan has made efforts to push up its fertility rate — the average number of births per woman — from its current level of around 1.4 to a target of 1.8, still short of the 2.1 considered necessary to hold the population steady.

The government has moved to encourage births by increasing incentives for parents to have more children and reducing obstacles that might discourage those who want to.

But the incentives are proving insufficient as more people in Japan are putting off childbirth — or not having children at all — to take advantage of economic opportunities. Or conversely, because they are worried that economic opportunities do not exist, and they cannot afford children.

Even for those who do want to be parents, however, the hurdles remain daunting.

Demand for day care in the country far outstrips supply, making it difficult for working mothers to juggle their careers and their children. And working fathers who want to take advantage of the country's generous paternity leave can find themselves stigmatised by an entrenched cultural belief that a man's place is in the office, not in the home.

Adding to the government's worries, marriage is on the decline. The number of marriages dropped by 3000 year-on-year to 583,000, according to the data released Tuesday, part of a steep decline during the last decade.

As births continue to drop, Japan has tried to promote robots as a supplement for its shrinking workforce.

It has also committed to accepting limited numbers of immigrants to handle vital work such as caring for the elderly. This year the country began issuing more than a quarter of a million visas to immigrants who will do such work.

New York Times

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