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21st Century Demographics – a Look at Japan’s Famously Low Birthrate

One of the most impactful trends of the 21st Century so far has been the collapse of birth rates across the world, first in developed countries, and now throughout most of the developing world. Japan, despite being seen as somewhat of a cultural odd-man-out, obviously not Western but also too idiosyncratic to fit neatly in the East, has been leading this trend as it has led many of the trends of postwar modernity.

Why is that? Why have things, ranging from demographic changes to the ubiquity of smart cellphones to a photo-taking foodie culture, often happened here first? Perhaps it dates back to the sharp break that occurred with defeat in the Second World War, the whiplash of moving from what was pre-war Japan to what suddenly became a defeated, occupied country, left in rubble, that freed Japanese society to rush headlong into a future-focused, relentlessly secular, almost sci-fi modernity.

The fact that the modernity that Japan was rushing toward was initially almost completely a product of the West, which was and is a foreign, half-understood culture in Japan, allowed a lightness and ease interacting with that culture, adapting it to Japanese sensibilities and needs without worrying about Western antecedents and traditions. Maybe that’s why things have tended to happen first in Japan, being the first non-Western country to develop, focusing on the future as a way to escape memories of the recent past, and unburdened by the present’s connection to the past in a way that Western countries have not been.

Here I am looking at one of those trends that Japan has led – the demographic transition from high birth rates to low birth rates. If we want to see what that transition will hold in store for East Asia, for the developed world, and increasingly for the developing world, it helps to see what has already happened, and what is currently happening, here in Japan.

Maybe the single best way to look at a society’s birthrate is through its TFR – total fertility rate – or put more simply, the number of children a woman is expected have in her life. Japan started the post-war period with quite a high TFR, having its own very large baby boom. From 3.4 in 1950, the TFR fell to just about replacement level (2.1) in 1958, and stayed in that range for the next 15 years. In 1976, it fell below 2.0 for the first time, and has never reached that number again. By 1990, the TFR fell to 1.6, by 2003, to 1.3, and has stayed in the 1.3-1.4 range ever since.

Japanese TFR 1960-2019

One way to look at the TFR is to keep in mind that it takes 2 people to make a baby, so to speak, and logically, it will take 2 babies to “replace” those 2 people as time moves on. If 2 people only make an average of 1.4 babies in their lives, the size of the next generation will decrease, in this case by 30%. To give simple numbers, at a TFR of 1.4, 100 people will lead to a next generation of 70 people, and if the TFR stays exactly the same, those 70 people will lead to a following generation of 49. If the TFR is 1.0 (as it approximately is in a few countries right now), 100 people will lead to a next generation of 50 people, and then to 25 people in the generation after that.

Japan’s TFR is not the lowest in the world right now. Why then is Japan’s population decreasing when other countries with lower TFRs still have increasing populations? One answer is immigration, but another answer is that populations have “momentum”. Even if the birth rate is low right now, if it was very high 20 years ago, or 40 years ago, the population can still keep growing, because those older, very large generations are still around, and it is only members of the smaller pre-baby-boom generation that are now reaching the end of their lives.

What is unique about Japan is that because its period of high TFR was so long ago (in the early 1950s and before), and its transition to below-replacement-level TFR happened nearly 45 years ago, the Japanese population has completely lost its forward “momentum,” and has started to decline. Right now the decline is relatively small (less than 0.3% per year), but it will speed up in the future as momentum builds toward a more rapidly declining population.

As a country transitions from population growth to population decline, it typically first has a large middle-aged cohort, and then later a large old-age cohort coupled with progressively smaller youth cohorts. Japan today still has plenty of people in early-middle-age, people in their 40s, but the number of young has been declining for quite a while, and in 2019, there were only 60% as many people in the 5-year age range 20-24 as there were in the 5-year age range 45-49. And only 49% as many people in the 5-year age range 0-4 as there were in the range 45-49.

Japanese population pyramid 2019

Even though the Japanese TFR was already just 1.37 in the year 2000, because of remaining population momentum at that time, there were still plenty of young people around. In fact the age 20s cohort was the largest among all groups. Now that is no longer the case, and maybe that is why for example the street fashion and pop culture of the late 90s and early 00s seemed so lively in Japan compared to now, and why there might be a general conservative shift in the country these days. Not so much to the populist conservatism found elsewhere, but to a risk-averse, change-averse small “c” conservatism, as Americans might call it.

As with culture, perhaps with economics. It is hard to have a lively startup scene when the number of people entering the workforce is shrinking every year, and where the dominant domestic consumer market is retired people and those in middle-age. At the same time, Japan is still a fully developed country with salaries squarely in developed country range, and because of the declining workforce, young people have little trouble finding work.

Why not increase immigration, as not only North America but also Europe have done? I personally would welcome increased immigration, but there are reasons for Japanese reluctance. America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are fundamentally different in being nations of immigrants. It is easier to welcome large-scale immigration when most of the existing population identifies as the descendants of immigrants. But even in Europe, there are a few more subtle but still important differences. One way that Japan is unique is the sheer number of unspoken rules that govern everyday behavior here. When to talk, what to say, what to do, what is polite and what is rude or lacking in tact. This leads to a very orderly society with low crime, clean streets, very strong social cohesion, and in some sense low stress, since it is very clear what is expected from you. But it is also a society that is very hard to assimilate into. Western countries, including those in Europe, are much more free in comparison. Not quite “anything goes”, but a lot more goes, so it is easier for people from different cultures to adjust to life there.

Another important difference is the self-conception of the West as a universal culture. There is a tendency in America and in Europe to see the way the West does things as the natural, rational order of developed human society. Sure, with room for improvement, but the effort toward improvement itself being an integral part of that universal, rational culture. Japan has no such self-confidence. People here are aware that Japan is a small part of the world, with an idiosyncratic culture that they have no desire to convert other people to. And so there is a fear of the difficulty of turning large numbers of immigrants into members of this unusual, idiosyncratic, island culture. Also, conversely, there is a confidence that given the orderliness of the society, Japan will get through this demographic transition in a reasonable, acceptable way.

Reading this post, and reading general media coverage of Japan, it is easy to forget that in 2021, Japan actually has a high TFR compared to the rest of developed Asia. There is already some talk of Japan being exceptional in the Northeast Asian context in the other direction, by having what is by regional standards a high birth rate. And this brings us to the reasons for Japan’s, and by extension the world’s, declining TFR.

When Japan was pioneering new TFR lows in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of emphasis on Japan-specific causes. In general conversations, there still is – Japanese men’s tendency not to do much childcare or housework, the related tendency of Japanese to work very long hours, the expectation that women will leave the workforce after having children, or now that they are returning in large numbers, to take what is referred to as temporary work without the benefits, high salaries, or career opportunities available to men with permanent work. There are plenty of other possible Japan-specific reasons as well, like the small, tight living spaces compared to what North Americans or Australians are used to, and the large amount of record-keeping and busy-work mothers are expected to do by schools in relation to their younger children’s education.

But Japan-specific causes do not work because very low TFR is not Japan-specific anymore. Compared to Japan’s TFR of approximately 1.4 in 2019, South Korea had a TFR of 0.9, Italy 1.3, Spain 1.3, Canada 1.5, and even traditional outlier the USA had a TFR of 1.8. In the developing world, a large number of Indian states now have TFRs of 1.7 or below, and the provinces of Northeastern China have the lowest TFRs of anywhere in the world, coming in at less than 0.6. So whatever the broad causes of below replacement-level birthrates, they are not Japanese long work hours, small living spaces, or school/homework diary requirements, but are reasons that unite Tamil Nadu, Canada, Italy, China, South Korea, Ukraine, Germany, and many other countries. Japan just got there first, and is experiencing the effects of ongoing demographic change first.

One thing that does come to mind when comparing Japan to close neighbors like South Korea, which now have significantly lower TFRs than Japan, is cost of living. Japanese big cities have relatively robust birth rates compared to places like Seoul. And this may be because housing in Seoul is very expensive relative to local salaries, while the Tokyo metropolitan area, not to speak of even cheaper big cities like Osaka, is much less expensive. And this in turn may be because Japan is further along in its demographic transition, with less pressure on housing prices. Japanese conservatism, risk-aversion, might also extend a little bit to a remaining preference for families. The large majority of people still want to get married, and the large majority of women would still prefer to have children, with 2 children most often viewed as the ideal, and 3 children as not out of the question.

What then has been the cause of declining TFRs first in Japan and in a few other developed nations, and now across the world? At this point no one is very sure, but I can at least guess at a range of factors related to a cultural modernity, a movement away from tradition, which seem to be nearly inevitable in all societies as they modernize. I suspect that it is not development level per se, because there are significant regions of the developing world (parts of India, the Middle East, Latin America, China) with below-replacement-level TFRs, and while almost all of the developed world now has TFRs below 2.1, different countries got there at different times, with different current trends of falling further or stabilizing.

I want to end this post by reflecting on whether low TFRs are a bad thing at all, as they are most often considered to be in the Japanese context. If you have ever been in Japan, not only in Tokyo but almost everywhere there is flat land, you will have noticed just how crowded this country is. Is it necessarily a bad thing for the population to decrease, for the stress on the land to decrease, and for there to be more physical space for everyone? The current trend seems to be a consolidation of population in the Tokyo area, and to a much lesser extent in a few other large urban areas like Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka. Is a Japan with a still very large, very lively Tokyo, an Osaka region that is a bit less energetic but still large, and a much more open countryside, so bad?

It is sad to read about villages inhabited for hundreds of years slowly being abandoned, about regional towns becoming almost bereft of people in their 20s, and in some cases about old people living alone without children and grandchildren to take care of them or keep them company, but this may point to the transition being difficult, not necessarily to the destination being a bad one. There are remedial measures that can be taken, in better and more humanized elder care, in a rational approach to rural land reclamation, and in other areas. But one good thing about Japan is that it has the societal cohesion to pull off this transition more smoothly than almost anywhere else in the world, and to come out on the other end a less populated, less polluting, more ecologically aware country.

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