September 16, 2022 - 10:15am

In May of this year that keen observer of future trends Elon Musk caused a storm when he observed that, if their ultra-low birthrate were to continue, the Japanese would eventually ‘cease to exist’. He was responding to an eleventh consecutive drop in population numbers caused by a lack of births and the ever-increasing longevity. Japan now has a record 86,000 centenarians, and adult diapers have outsold those for babies since 2011.

Musk was accused of alarmism but more evidence to support his grim hypothesis emerged recently with a survey of attitudes to marriage among the Japanese young. A poll by the government affiliated National Institute of Population and Social Security found that 17.3% of men and 14.6% of women aged between 18 and 34 said they had no intention of marrying, which represented an eightfold rise for men and a threefold rise for women from the same survey in 1982. Japan also saw a record low in new births in 2021 (811,604 down 3.5% from the previous year).

The Japanese seem less and less inclined to commit to a life-long partner and especially reluctant to procreate, which does indeed leave the country facing the prospect of becoming the world’s largest retirement community. What this might look like can already be witnessed in Japan’s rapidly depopulating countryside where substantial properties in ghost towns can bought for the price of a car.

But is there anything uniquely Japanese about this? The truth is that Japan’s fertility rate (births per 1000 women of child-bearing age — a more accurate metric than the birth rate) is certainly low (1.38) but 10 countries have worse figures. Taiwan, about which we rarely hear, takes ‘top’ spot at 1.07. The UK (1.7) is not much better. And declining interest in marriage, or a shift towards later marriage, is a first-world trend. To cite just two examples: marriages fell by a hefty 6.5% in the UK (in 2019 from 2018) while the US marriage rate has halved (9.8 per 1000 people to 5.1) since the 1990s.

We could look for local factors to explain Japan’s declining fertility rates. In Japan, there are certainly a distinct lack of role models; the Japanese royal family has shrunk to a barely sustainable number and glamorous pop musicians are essentially banned from having relationships — a glossy young idol flashing her baby bump for the media is something you never see here. And the traditional match-making business (‘omiai’), once very common, has fallen into abeyance, leaving it harder for the difficult to pair off to find partners.

But these are unlikely to have made a huge difference. In Japan, as elsewhere, the most plausible explanations for people postponing their family planning are economic uncertainty and the end of the job for life guarantee offered by major employers. Then there is the increased number of women in the workplace enjoying newly available career opportunities and the attendant decline in status of the traditional housewife.

What does mark out Japan and gives a degree of credence to the extinction narratives is the extremely low rates of immigration. Where many advanced western countries camouflage their dwindling native populations and invigorate their workforce with large numbers of imported citizens, Japan retains very strict controls. There are especially steep barriers to overcome for those wishing to attain permanent residence or bring their families.

It’s a controversial issue. It is possible to have sympathy with Japan’s desire for a homogenous society and the preservation of its unique identity and complex rule and etiquette-based culture, which it would be hard to imagine surviving a huge influx of untrained immigrants. On the other hand, some see the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the demographic realities by welcoming newcomers as simple racism. Many in Japan would bristle at that suggestion but Japan’s strict and protracted, but popular, Covid-19 entry restrictions for foreigners do suggest a country that hasn’t wholly shaken off its historically isolationist tendencies.

That leaves a stark choice: preserve the culture but accept a gradual decline and an increasingly urbanised gerontocratic society; or embrace an influx of new arrivals, and a sustainable, but very different Japan.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.