We’ve talked about the demographic situation in Japan before on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here).  The country is facing a problem that is familiar to our readers – an ageing, declining population – but in Japan it is a problem that is much more serious and advanced than in other countries.  According to the 2010 Japan census, published by the Statistics Bureau of Japan, the proportion of Japanese aged 15 years old and under was 13.2% of the population, while those aged 65 years old and above was 23%. This latter figure is the highest proportion in the world; Italy and Germany both claim second spot on 20.4%.

In many respects Japan is the canary in the mine: where it leads demographically, many countries in the West will follow.  However, we should not downplay the real differences between different countries. I was interested to read this article from Japan Economic Currents from 2008 about Japan’s demographics which discussed some of the cultural-specific reasons for its low birth rate and some of the things that may stand it in good stead in the future. 

The article discusses the low female participation rate in the Japanese workforce and whether higher workforce participation would result in an increased fertility rate (the authors are not convinced).  Next, the authors discuss the fact that Japanese couples are marrying later than before and that, unlike other countries, this has a large impact on the total fertility rate.  This is due to the fact that Japan has extremely low rates of children born out of wedlock – about 2% of all children born. In contrast, in Sweden over half of the children born are born out of wedlock.  This means that if Japanese are getting married later (the average age of women getting married in Japan climbed 2.4 years in the 20 years from 1984) then that is decreasing the number of child bearing years and hence the fertility rate lowers.  The article then discusses the debate in Japanese government circles between financial assistance measures and making employment more flexible for mothers.  It concludes that parents should not be forced to choose between working and raising children.  That any financial assistance should be targeted to those who need it and should not be universal. Finally that it is not clear that providing either form of assistance will increase the birth rate.

Hmmmm. So what grounds are there for optimism for Japan? The first is relatively low level of elderly dependence upon the Government:

“Public benefits, including everything from pensions to social assistance, account for just one third of the after-tax income of elderly households in Japan, about what they do in the United States.  In most European countries, with their more generous welfare states, more than half of elderly income comes in the form of a government check, and in France two-thirds does.”

Secondly, more Japanese work later than other countries. 29% of men in Japan aged 65 years and older remain in the labour force, opposed to 20% in the US and 5% in Germany and 2% in France.  Alongside these advantages, the article points to two serious disadvantages:

“Japan’s conservative workplace and family culture often confronts women with a zero-sum trade-off between jobs and family, which is why Japan has both one of the lowest fertility rates in the OECD and one of the lowest female labour-force participation rates…An ageing United States in particular enjoys another big advantage that an ageing Japan does not – namely, its long historical tradition of welcoming and assimilating migrants from younger and faster growing countries around the world.”

One proposed solution to the ageing population not mentioned in the article is to turn to robot helpers as a replacement for human help.  And this solution may not be very far off at all:

“The Japanese image of a robot is that of a friendly helper rather than something to be feared or avoided. So it is certainly not inconceivable, as technology improves, that wealthy elderly Japanese without family support (or with absent or unhelpful children) might turn to robots to care for them in old age.

There is already a robot which can tell a forgetful elderly person to take their pills, or not to take them twice.”

That robot can be viewed here, while another example of the state of robotics technology in Japan can be seen here.  Can Japan overcome its demographic trajectory? Or will it continue to slowly fade under the weight of its elderly in the decades to come?

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...