To many of us, far-away Japan may seem like a paradise defined by fine cuisine, art and a culture that has permeated the collective consciousness. It is difficult to envision Japan as a country experiencing deeply rooted issues that could threaten its survival as a world leader and as a nation in the future. Its disciplined and stoic, albeit flexible culture has facilitated the nation’s survival and prosperity through a multitude of crises throughout history. Some examples include the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, which forced Japan to abandon its strict isolationism and deal with the Western world (1), or the catastrophic atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US in 1945.
Despite these historical hardships, Japan has succeeded in establishing itself as a major modern global power, having the third largest economy in the world, behind only the US and China (2), nations which are both larger and have much higher populations. Furthermore, the nation has come to represent a staple of hygiene, health and overall quality of live, with a life expectancy of 84 (3), the fourth highest in the world (4). However, Japan’s current status as a major cultural and economic entity on the global stage is being threatened by one major demographic trend that can threaten its very existence, namely the steady decline of the nation’s birth rate, which is progressively leading to elderly people constituting a dangerously high proportion of the population (Diamond, 2019), as well as to a rapid decline in population. This implies that Japan’s workforce is becoming smaller and smaller, which, coupled with low taxes, is expected to place a large economic strain on the Japanese government, making future state expenditure unsustainable.
Additionally, a problematic development is the ever rising national debt of the nation, which now sits at an astounding 224% of its yearly GDP, the highest debt to GDP ratio of any country in the world (6). The debt comes as a result of the government using money invested in Japanese bonds by mostly private local investors to sustain its high social security costs (7), as well as several stimulus checks emitted to compensate for the economic aftermath of the 2008-2009 recessions (8). Even so, market confidence remains high as Japan’s status as the world’s biggest creditor, with $3 trillion invested in foreign funds and currencies, provides a crutch for the economy as well as a perceived invitation for further investment due to the economy still being considered as stable. This perception of stability may prove to be illusory as the debt keeps rising due to increasingly higher social security costs as a result of the aging population, which also implies a future inability to pay off the debt as a result of the future’s projected nigh non-existent state income. In the context of this impending crisis, Japan’s citizens experience the stress of working more hours, reporting general lower levels of satisfaction (OECD, 2020), often pushing themselves towards extreme health issues and even “death by overwork”, which the Japanese call karoshi (9).
As for the reasons of the nation’s extremely low birth rate, multiple possible contributing factors have been identified. One is that romantic marriage is a relatively new practice for the Japanese. Up until as late as the 1960s, arranged marriages termed miai were still the norm (10), which may imply that many Japanese young people of the recent and current generations were raised by parents who had never experienced the social aspect of finding a romantic partner, and could thus not facilitate their children’s proper socializing. This is further reflected in the fact that a generous minimum of 1.5% of Japan’s entire population have assumed a retreatist lifestyle, abandoning dating and work, which leads to negative implications for both government income and the birth rate (11). This passive demographic of the population, referred to as hikikomori, is projected to rise to as much as 12% of the entire working population aged 15 to 64. Due to the lack of potential marriage partners, those still interested in the practice have resorted to drastic measures such as complex forms of miai through online sites or even DNA matchmaking (12).
A second possible factor contributing to the decline in birth rates, as identified by the government, is the transition of women’s gender roles from housewives and child bearers to working individuals as a result of Western cultural influences. Coupled with the propensity for overworking as part of Japanese work culture, as well as the growing consumption tax demanding more and more productivity from workers (13), it is unsurprising that the growing demands of consumerism direct the Japanese people’s focus away from the idea of starting a family and more towards the pursuit of a career.
While these factors provide a negative forecast for Japan’s future, there may still be hope of preventing, or at least delaying this crisis. The Japanese government is currently developing policies to facilitate the productivity of its elderly workforce, such as encouraging employers to not discriminate based on age and avoiding the overworking of older Japanese workers, thus allowing them to work later into their lives without health consequences (OECD, 2018). Even as these policies may delay the effects of the birth rate crisis in Japan, they do not provide a roadmap to finding a long-term solution. The most often proposed answer to the impending crisis is to allow free immigration into the country, reinforcing the workforce as many Western countries have to maintain productivity despite a declining population. However, it is unlikely that Japan will take this course of action given its dedication to maintaining an ethnically homogenous state (Diamond, 2019).
Whether Japan will be able to solve this crisis without implementing authoritarian measures such as enforced monogamy or sacrificing its resolve to strongly restrict immigration remains to be seen. The nation’s precarious situation serves as an important reminder that appearances can be deceiving even when it comes to evaluating a state’s fragility.
1. US Office of the Historian (n.d.) “The United States and the Opening to Japan, 1853”. Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/opening-to-japan#:~:text=On%20July%208%2C%201853%2C%20American,Japan%20and%20the%20western%20world.
2. Investopedia (2020). “World’s Top Economies: Japan”. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/insights/worlds-top-economies/#3-japan.
3. OECD (2018). “Working Better with Age: Japan”. Retrieved from http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/japan/#:~:text=Japan%20performs%20well%20in%20some,personal%20security%2C%20and%20environmental%20quality.
4. CIA (2021). “The World Handbook: Japan: People and Society”. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/japan/#people-and-society
5. Diamond, J. (2019). “Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change”. Penguin Random House UK: Allen Lane.
6. Pham, P. (2017, December). “When Will Japan’s Debt Crisis Implode?”. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterpham/2017/12/11/when-will-japans-debt-crisis-implode/?sh=38fef3c04c6d.
7. CEIC Data (2021). “Japan Government Debt: % of GDP”. Retrieved from https://www.ceicdata.com/en/indicator/japan/government-debt--of-nominal-gdp.
8. The Economic Times (2020). “Japan’s debt mountain: How is it sustainable?”. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/business/japans-debt-mountain-how-is-it-sustainable/articleshow/76298563.cms?from=mdr.
9. Zenebe, B. (2020, July). “Japan’s Vicious “Death by Overwork” Cycle”. Northeastern University Political Review. Retrieved from https://www.nupoliticalreview.com/2020/07/15/japans-vicious-death-by-overwork-cycle/.
10. Nippon (2017). “”Miai”: Meetings to Arrange Marriages.” Nippon Japan Glances. Retrieved from https://www.nippon.com/en/features/jg00049/.
11. Nippon (2019). “Japan’s “Hikikomori” Population Could Top 10 Million”. Retrieved from https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/c05008/japan%E2%80%99s-hikikomori-population-could-top-10-million.html.
12. Roll, D. (2019, June). “Tired of looking for The One? Try Japan’s new DNA matchmaking service and maybe you’ll find them”. Sora News 24. Retrieved from https://soranews24.com/2019/06/06/tired-of-looking-for-the-one-try-japans-new-dna-matchmaking-service-and-maybe-youll-find-them/.
13. Takeo, Y. & Ito, S. (2020, February). “History repeats as consumption tax hike pushes Japan toward recession”. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/02/25/business/economy-business/sales-tax-recession/.