Japan’s population decline is accelerating. Preliminary figures indicate the number of births last year will be less than one million, a sure sign that the declining birthrate is reaching crisis proportions. And with fewer and fewer women of childbearing age, the birthrate can be expected to continue to slide. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should think of this as a state of emergency and immediately implement measures to stem the declining birthrate.
No society can function without the birth of new generations; no nation can remain viable without the infusion of new citizens. Even as we attempt to shore up the birthrate, it is urgent that we restructure our society into one that can tolerate a dwindling population. The time to start is now. This new year should be designated as the year for accomplishing that goal.
According to statistics made public at the end of 2016 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were only 981,000 births last year, down dramatically from the peak of 2.7 million in 1949. In just a little less than seven decades, the birthrate has gone down by one-third. This is an incredibly fast decline and sufficient cause for alarm. Japan is in a spiraling decline of fewer children leading to even fewer children. It will take years to put a stop to this.
Now that the birthrate has dropped below the one-million mark, it can be expected to go down even further to under 500,000 in roughly four decades. In just one short century, the annual birthrate may be less than 250,000. At this rate, Japanese society is certain to be thrown into turmoil.
A declining birthrate not only leads to a shrinking economy and the disruption of social security systems, saps a nation of its power but in numerous other ways. For example, it means fewer candidates for occupations such as the police, firefighters, and Self Defense Forces, posing a direct threat to national security and public order. Likewise, there will be fewer young people to take over family farms, or to become truck drivers, the mainstay of construction and distribution work. In rural areas, diminishing populations mean there are no young people to carry on local traditions and culture, and the very existence of regional communities is threatened.
This is a national crisis, but it is not a time to lament. It will not be easy to overcome this dilemma, but both government and the people must start with what can be done.
The first is to reinforce existing measures to stop the declining birthrate. It is encouraging that large numbers of people look forward to getting married and having children. Still, there are many and diverse reasons that those who wish to marry and have children cannot. The government needs to be more attentive to their needs and implement finely-tuned, detailed measures to address those needs.
To that end, there is a particular and urgent need to guarantee stable employment and income for the young. There is also a growing need to help young people pursue lifestyles that let them meet and get to know each other. Employers and local governments should review their labor practices to ensure that young people can, simply, get out more. Sympathetic elders could even facilitate meetings like the marriage-arrangers of older times.
The second measure is to make a society that is more resilient to a declining birthrate. Last year’s population decrease is the largest ever and the time will come when the population will lose an average of one million people per year. Some have proposed that the shortfall be made up by allowing more immigration, and while this should be encouraged, it is not a realistic proposal for making up the population shortfall.
Instead, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) offer the potential to offset the productivity loss that results from a declining population. Additionally, employers need to make better use of their human resources and reconsider practices such as keeping stores open 24 hours.
As the number of elderly soars, more and more rural areas are seeing their populations plummet. It is essential that local communities cooperate better if they are able to function with only a small number of young people.
The Prime Minister must articulate how he intends to develop the country and ensure the well-being of its people. Japan will only be able to reverse its declining birthrate when a majority of its people can establish families and rediscover the joys of having offspring but this is not possible if their future remains uncertain. A critical factor to arrest the decline will, simply, be hope for the future.