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'Palpable' impact

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 6, 2015

Japan's birth rate fell to a new record low in 2014, with data showing just over a million new births. Social scientist Fabio Gygi talks to DW about what the decline means for the nation's economy and society as a whole.

Japan Frau Alter
Image: imago stock&people

Japan's population continues to shrink, and perhaps at a faster rate than expected. Last year, the estimated number of newborn babies slumped to 1,001,000, an all-time low for the fourth straight year, according to recently released data by the country's Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Local reports indicate that the number of newborns could fall below one million once the data is revised. The estimated number of people who died in 2014 totaled 1.269 million, rising for the fifth year in a row.

People over 65 and above are predicted to make up 40 percent of the total Japanese population by 2060. The recent figures are reason for concern for policymakers who seek to ensure that a dwindling pool of workers can support a growing number of pensioners.

Fabio Gygi, anthropologist and Japan expert at SOAS, University of London, explains in a DW interview the causes and consequences of Japan's population decline. The analyst says that while a sweeping change in the country's immigration policy could address key issues such as pensions and a lack of nurses, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

DW: Why does Japan's population continue to shrink?

Fabio Gygi: The main causes for Japan's population decline are both economic and social. More than twenty years of economic stagnation have seriously dampened any kind of optimism.

Fabio Gygi
Gygi: 'The main causes for Japan's population decline are both economic and social'Image: SOAS

Young professionals are facing an increasingly insecure outlook and since the "traditional" family model still stipulates that the husband is the main wage earner, founding a family has become much more risky, even economically unfeasible for the ever-increasing group of part-time workers (so-called "freeters").

On the other hand, this traditional family model has lost much of its attractiveness for young women who want more out of life than just being a homemaker. Although social expectations have started to change very slowly, alternative lifestyles such as unmarried cohabitation still carry a social stigma.

Marriage remains the only socially acceptable way to have children and as both men and women marry much later than only 15 years ago, fertility remains low.

It is important to point out, however, that the low fertility rate is not exclusive to Japan. Eastern European countries like Slovakia and Poland have an even lower fertility rate, not to speak of South Korea and Taiwan.

In what ways could this population decline impact Japan?

The impact is already palpable if one goes and visits peripheral regions in Japan. Depopulation is evident in many small towns where only a few elderly residents remain. A declining population of course also means less consumption, which in turn will affect the already slumping economy negatively.

As the aging population has a very long average life expectancy (86.6 for women, 80 for men in 2013), medical costs will inevitably balloon, consuming an increasingly larger part of the budget together with pensions.

What is the government doing against population decline and why has it so far failed to tackle the problem?

There are two things the government can do: 1) make having children more attractive and easier to young women and men by creating a more supportive environment and 2) allow controlled immigration on a large level.

Altenheim in Japan
Caring for the elderly is 'an increasingly unpopular line of work among young Japanese,' says GygiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The government on the whole pays lip-service to the idea of female empowerment, but not much is done to create an environment in which having children is not seen as an extreme financial and emotional burden. This would have to include openly addressing and fighting all kinds of social stigma: cohabitation, children born out of wedlock, single motherhood, surrogacy etc.

But these problems require long-term policies which will take time to show an effect. Although the problem is acknowledged by politicians and bureaucrats alike, nobody wants to be the first to take drastic steps towards a solution.

Allowing immigration would be the easiest and fastest way to tackle the problem. You could address the low fertility rate, the pension problem and the lack of qualified nurses who look after the infirm and elderly with one sweeping change of immigration policy.

The right-wing administration of prime PM Shinzo Abe is, however, extremely unlikely to make any move in that direction. Abe prefers to pour large amounts of resources into robotics in the hope that the problem of the care of the elderly - an increasingly unpopular line of work among young Japanese - can be solved by automation.

Why is the option of allowing more immigrants into the country so unpopular?

Notions of cultural and racial purity are still powerful and widespread in spite of efforts to recognize the fact that Japan has been a multiethnic society for a very long time.

The idea that there is a core - an essence of what it means to be Japanese, sometimes based on blood and soil, sometimes on timeless tradition and culture - is something that the state has inculcated in its citizens since the beginning of modernity.

Shinzo Abe Japan Premierminister
Abe's administration is 'extremely unlikely' to implement a sweeping change to the nation's immigration policy, says GygiImage: Getty Images/Jiji Press

The patriotic sentiments and anger against China and Korea that the Abe administration is purposefully whipping up to boost its own standing does not help, of course.

Moreover, a positive stance towards immigration is still seen by most politicians as the quickest way to lose an election. The government assumes that the Japanese population is staunchly against immigration, without doing anything to tackle this.

Interestingly, attitudes towards immigration in Japan become more positive the more fluent a person is in English, suggesting that boosting English education may help to make the Japanese more accepting of immigration.

Fabio Gygi is a lecturer in anthropology at SOAS, University of London. Before joining SOAS he was an assistant professor of sociology at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.