Connect with us


Reversing Depopulation: Why Japan Used to Be a 'Children's Paradise'

Before the rise of individualism, Japan was a "children's paradise." The key to reversing depopulation can be found in the Japanese people's own history.



"Autumn, Children's Playmate" by Yuro Tsujita from the Beautiful Japan Photo Contest. Children play in the foliage in Niiza City, Saitama Prefecture. (© Sankei)

For National Foundation Day this year of 2023, I hoped to write in the spirit of celebration, as I had done in my past articles. In 2020, I wrote about the origins and history of National Foundation Day. In 2021, I explained the importance of the holiday as an opportunity to reflect on the great achievements of the Meiji Restoration. But this year, I felt that congratulatory words alone could not do the occasion justice. That was because Japan is facing a severe depopulation, a crisis unprecedented since its founding.

For decades, the crisis had been unfolding before our very eyes. The stark reality of the decreasing number of children is obvious, just from looking around my neighborhood. The sparsity of students around elementary schools and commuting routes leaves these once-vibrant scenes in an almost desolate atmosphere.

On the weekends and early evenings on weekdays, children used to play out on the streets, their voices brimming with energy. Realizing that such sceneries were quickly becoming a thing of the past, I was overwhelmed with melancholy — as if this were the very sign of the nation's decline and fall.

Professor Emeritus Keiichiro Kobori of the University of Tokyo, the author of this article, on November 24, 2004. (© Sankei)

Prosperity Through Community

In an article published for this column on August 13, 2020, I proposed a way to reverse the declining population.

The proposal was based on my experience as a member of the research group "Strengthening Family Foundations" in the summer of 1979. The group was organized by the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira.

The main features of the proposal were to encourage people to invest in private property and to revise the tax system to make it easier for the next generation to inherit what the previous generation had built up.

Times have changed, but I still believe in this proposal. However, this is a proposal for the legislature. If the politicians won't listen, then it cannot go any further.

Then how can we encourage the public anew to make a greater effort toward increasing the population?


There is no better way than to inspire them to seek prosperity through kinship communities. For there to be more marriages among the younger generation, they need to know that family life can bring immense joy and that raising children is a great honor. 

Children running in front of the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center in Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture, on April 18, 2021. (© Sankei by Junpei Teraguchi)

A Guiding Light from Modern History

Perhaps my proposal comes across to some as banal and hackneyed. After all, it points out the failures of individualism as a way of life, which have become apparent to all. And in its stead, it advocates a return to and revival of familism.

Fortunately, however, the Japanese people find a compass in their own history. It tells them when and how to turn back when things have gone awry. 

But that compass is not found in the ancient story of the founding of Japan by Emperor Jimmu. It is instead an ideal found in the lifestyle of modern-era Japan. An ideal that is worth shouting at the top of my lungs to call attention to.

For our busy readers, this ideal can be found in a single book: Remnants of Days Past by Kyoji Watanabe.

The book was first published in 1998 by Ashishobo and is subtitled "A Journey Through Old Japan." All the illustrations are from travelogues of modern Japan by Europeans and Americans. This is a sensible approach by the author which avoids inadvertently creating a vain self-portrait of the Japanese. 

To achieve this, the author consulted around 150 sources. Fortunately, about 130 of them have been translated and published in Japanese. Therefore, readers can verify that the author has not misquoted or altered the source material to suit his work. Many of the Japanese translations are currently available in Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko, Heibonsha Toyo Bunko, and Iwanami Bunko.

Remnants of Days Past by Kyōji Watanabe, translated by Joseph Litsch. (© Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture)

A Children's Paradise

Chapter 10 of the book is titled "Children's Paradise." It describes the ideal society to which the modern era should return. According to the author, Japan was first described as a true "children's paradise" by Rutherford Allcock, the first British diplomatic representative to Japan. The phrase later became a byword for Japan among the Europeans and Westerners who visited the country.

By this expression, they were not saying that children were treated like toys in modern Japan. As Watanabe notes, Edward S Morse noticed the unique role of Japanese children in rituals and ceremonies. From this, he analyzed that Japanese civilization recognized the independent world of the child. He also described Japan as a unique civilization that allowed children to participate in all aspects of adult life.

Miko (shrine maidens) dedicate the Kagura dance at the Kigensai Festival held at Kashihara Shrine on February 11, 2023, on National Foundation Day in Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture. (© Sankei by Toshihiro Araki)

Turning the Metaphor into a Reality

This is an accurate observation because a social order created by the overlap of families (kinship communities) and local communities (which share rituals of ancestor veneration) provided a safe environment for people to live in. This in turn nurtured the will to protect this environment for the next generation.

Let us recreate this ideal society — a children's paradise that was the object of admiration and envy in the eyes of the West during the Meiji era. At the moment, this proposal is only a metaphor. But if it is promoted with enough determination, it will imbue the people with a desire to give substance to this symbolic expression.


It is this desire that could become the fundamental impetus for a new national project to restore Japan from its current decline. 


(A version of this Seiron essay originally appeared in Japanese on February 10, 2023.)

Author: Keiichiro Kobori

Our Partners