Japan, a nation known and admired for its industriousness and meteoric recovery and growth after World War II, is experiencing a population crisis. The country has one of the highest life expectancies and one of the lowest fertility rates. The aging dynamics of Japan place an increasing burden on the diminishing youth population.
Economies are sustained by the incoming and emerging generations, which fund and underwrite the social programs that sustain the senior population; However, with fewer Japanese citizens having children, austere immigration policies and an already dwindling population, the fate of Japan remains uncertain.
The nation’s demographic difficulties are understood and felt by the entire nation, especially when the declining population and the number of individuals entering the workforce are decreasing. The birth rate has fallen below the replacement level. In 2014 it was reported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication that 12.5 percent of the population is 75 years old and above, 25.9 percent is aged 65 or above and 33 percent of the population is above 60.
The population decline has several causes. The Eugenic Protection Law of 1948, made abortion more accessible to women, increased participation of women in the labor force and higher college attendance, urbanization, fertility rates falling after World War II and the national reconstruction that followed, increased nutrition and medical advances raised life expectancy and the workforce evolved to prioritize career advancement over social and personal development.
The Japanese work environment and culture demand long hours and company loyalty. Nearly a quarter of Japanese companies make employees work more than 80 hours of overtime, usually unpaid. 12 percent of companies have employees clocking over 100 hours a month of overtime. With the majority of one’s time spent in the office, many workers simply do not have enough time to dedicate to children.
“We will continue to put efforts into support for child-rearing,” welfare minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki told The Japan Times in 2016.
Sociologists found that a sustainable birth rate is 2.1 births per woman whereas Japan currently has 1.4 births per woman. Many other nations are experiencing a similar, yet not as profound of a decrease as Japan. China, Denmark, the United States, and Singapore are experiencing population declines with the following rates, respectively: 1.6, 1.73, 1.87 and 0.81.
The crisis also has come among a period of decrease marriages and relationships with 60 percent of unmarried Japanese women and 70 percent of unmarried Japanese men reporting they are not in a relationship. Additionally, 42 percent of men and 44 percent women also report never before participating in sexual intercourse. The survey was conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, which has performed the same survey consistently every five years since 1987.
The statistics are showing that majorities of young people prefer to focus their energies and abilities on their educations and skills to increase their employability, especially in an unstable economic climate. “They want to tie the knot eventually,” said Futoshi Ishii, NIPSSR’s Population Dynamics Research Department head. “That’s why people marry later or stay single for life, contributing to the nation’s low birthrate.”
The problem is so severe amongst unmarried individuals that Sociologist Masahiro Yamada created the term “parasite singles” to describe the Japanese individuals, usually directed at single women, who remain unmarried in their twenties and thirties and continue living with their parents.
Associate Professor at the Institute of Social Science, Genda Yuji, disagrees with Yamada’s defamation of young people as economic parasites and believes the previous generations are culpable for damaging the economy and infrastructure. He also blames the Japanese government for its inability to improve the employment system.
“As the unemployment rate soared in the 1990s, the number of unemployed went up sharply not only among middle-aged and older workers but among young people, as did the number of young people known as “freeters” who do not work as full-time employees but move from one part-time to another. The increase in these two groups was seen as the result of a change in attitudes toward work among young Japanese.” said Yuji.
“Young adults who continue to live at home with their parents were labeled “parasite singles” and ridiculed as symbols of a weakening sense of self-reliance among Japanese youth, or a growing dependence on their parents. What lies behind the change in Japanese young people’s behavior, however, is not simply a change in the work ethic or a rise in dependence. Rather, these are the by-products of the confusion in the Japanese employment system, which is unable to deal adequately with the new age. Japanese companies still lack the flexibility to adjust employment, and this defect has manifested itself as a reduction in job opportunities for young people. Reduced to the status of social underdogs, Japanese young people have had no alternative but to become economically dependent on their parents.”
The government has taken several measures to stimulate population growth. One solution is through increased immigration, which has been austere and restricted in Japan through its negation of birth rate citizenship. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has discussed laxing immigration policies, but The Economist states that “a change on that scale would require major surgery to the country’s entire social architecture.” Japan would need to allow 650,000 immigrants per year. Countries, which experienced similar situations, like Australia, Canada, and the United States, have increased their labor force through open immigration policies.
However, Japan has remained restrictive with its immigration policies due to a fear of increased crimes committed by foreigners. Japan has also expressed a desire to preserve their cultural traditions and the racial homogeneity of the country.
The government has also incentivized fatherhood for working men. In 2015, several laws were created that offered paternity leave and reduced childcare. Another solution has been, government sponsored dating events and matchmaking protocols.
If Japan does not work towards improving its immigrant and economic policies the nation is slated to experience an eventual “demographic time bomb.” The population also remains optimistic, in a 2016 study most of the individuals surveyed expressed a desire to eventually get married and have children.
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami. Her work has appeared in the Accentos Review, Pank Magazine, The New Tropic and the Miami New Times. Madari focuses on women’s issue abroad and Latin America.