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Sky Not Falling With Japanese Birthrates


There's one complaint visitors to Tokyo rarely make, and that is "not enough people." With a population of 36 million, the Tokyo metropolitan area stuffs an average 6,800 people in each square mile. By contrast, the New York metro area, with 19 million residents, has a density of 2,800 people per square mile.

The Tokyo subways still employ the legendary "people pushers," who shove passengers into the already packed cars. The Japanese have a word for their daily trip to work: "tsukin jigoku," or "commuter hell."

In an area about the size of Montana, Japan has a population of 128 million. Montana has about 1 million. If any country could do with fewer people, it would be Japan.

Yet so much head-smacking greets demographic projections showing that Japan's population is expected to fall by about a third to 87 million by 2060. The reason for these dramatic numbers is very low birthrates.

Right-wing populists in the United States associate growing numbers with growing economies and national power. And the politics against abortion and birth control also contribute to the belief that more people make a stronger nation. A 2008 documentary, "Demographic Winter," seeks to make these arguments. But the viewer suspects other agendas when it blames falling birthrates on the decline in marriage, extramarital sex and Hollywood.

The documentary's website oddly ties the 1989 Japanese stock market crash and ensuing economic crisis to that country's declining birthrates. The bursting of a stock and real-estate bubble would seem more like it. And interestingly, Japan's average life expectancy jumped 4.2 years to 83 during the so-called "Lost Decade." Japan's life expectancy is now nearly four years higher than America's.

Many Japan observers see the demographic trend not as a national problem, but as a goal.

Fewer people would enhance the island nation's food security. It would curb the cost of housing. Fewer people means fewer houses, fewer cars and more open space. It makes labor more valuable.

It is true that Japan is a rapidly aging society, as is ours. The Japanese face the challenge of caring for many elderly people in a country with fewer young workers. Higher retirement ages will deal with some of the labor needs, and more experienced older workers are actually good for an economy.

In America, the usual recommendation for these changing demographics is to admit more immigrants. The Japanese, long hostile to immigration, see automation as the answer. The country's engineers are developing robots to do much of the nursing home-type work. The Japanese government is investing large amounts in these technologies, turning a challenge into a growth industry.

Birthrates do change. Scandinavian countries saw them fall sharply in the '80s, before they started rising again. Norway is almost back to the replacement rate. And Japan's government is proposing new programs to make bearing and raising children easier on their working parents.

But for a crowded place like Japan, a population decline mostly points to a more pleasant future. That's the view of Stephen Harner, an American who lived in Japan for many years. Imagining what the country will be like in 50 years, he wrote in Forbes: "It will probably be an easier place in which to live. Less crowded, certainly. The countryside, in particular, will be even more beautiful and enchanting."

Still, the stories about Japanese demographics use startling words. CNN recently called the projections "staggering." But here's the less dramatic reality: A Japan with 87 million people will have the same population it had in the 1950s. That's hardly "depopulation," as the alarmists would have it, and a commute without people pushers sounds OK to me.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




7 Comments | Post Comment
Re: "Fewer people would enhance the island nation's food security. It would curb the cost of housing. Fewer people means fewer houses, fewer cars and more open space. It makes labor more valuable." The simplest way to achieve that goal would be to eliminate all adults that are not paying taxes but living off tax-payers. And, as a bonus, they could be turned into food. Soylent Green, anyone?
Comment: #1
Posted by: David Henricks
Thu Mar 22, 2012 9:17 PM
Population is the envirnmental problem. This is something I dont hear much out of envirmentalists. I have not problem with a reduction in people. However, I have a problem with the government having any input into birth and death rate. Soylent Green tastes terrible. Yuck! Also,most of the United States population growth is from immigration. It may be true that population may not influence the economy, however right now we could use a little help paying for the retirees social security.
Comment: #2
Posted by: SCOTT
Fri Mar 23, 2012 7:15 PM
Well Froma uncovered a giant fallacy in Social Security while she was at it. Changing birthrates totally mess up social security. A system that depends on current workers to fund retirees is simply flawed. Let people be responsible for themselves and save for their own retirement. If social security wasen't forced on me I could be putting that money into my own low-risk accounts and retire in style. I doubt I will get a dime back from SS though.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:34 AM
Re: Chris McCoy
And what if people can't save enough for their own retirement? People who lose their jobs, kids get sick, people who get Alzheimer's, how about nice people in blue color or minimum wage jobs, like at Wal Mart. Hard working people who will never have enough left over money to sock some away after payday. How about the pension funds that got raided at Enron or collapsed in the stock market. I have a friend who lost his entire Veizon retirement when he invested it in Merrill Lynch before the market collapse. He worked for 37 years and lost over $500,000 dollars. Your average Joe would never be able to sock enough away to live on for 25 or 30 years. Let's assume they work until 67 or 70, it is not unusual for seniors now to live into their late 80's or beyond. Can they save enough money to support themselves for a possible 30 years? Social security is a great idea, here''s the rub, when it was voted in, the averge life span was 62, the government thought most people would never use it. And that worked for many years, it was a great system. Modern medicine has screwed that up, seniors are living into their 80's, 90's, or beyond and there is no way social security was meant to support anyone for 25 or 30 years. Another aspect that has a huge effect is that when social security was enacted, families were much larger and there were more kids to pay into the system for Mom and Dad, birth control changed all that, instead of 4 or more kids the average became two, that decreased the contribution to half as much for the future program. It is unlikely that the average American would ever be able to save enough to support themselves for 25 or 30 years, and with medical advances that will climb even more. You are going to see tons of seniors living in nursing homes for 30 years and probably more. Old and sick and unable to work, but with a longer and longer life span. Skilled nursing facilitites and long term care companies are booming, the next great growth industry, all those seniors who can't live alone and need care, and all those kids with duel incomes who can' take care of Mom and Dad. Social security wasn't adjusted to envision the future as it went along. Although it would have been wildy unpopular, contributions should have doubled for you and me to take care of our baby boomers. We're just living too damn long. We mucked it up.
I won't even go into our good politicians raiding the funds that were availabe and using them for other uses.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Bloom Hilda
Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:02 PM

Come on Scott, Soylent Green can be fabulous, heres my recipe:

2 cups of soylent green, room temperature,
1/2 cup of cocoa,
2 cups of sugar
2 eggs, beaten,
2 cups flour,

mix well and pour into cupcake papers,
bake at 350 for 45 minutes
let cool
cover with chocolate icing and green sprinkles

Comment: #5
Posted by: Bloom Hilda
Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:46 PM
Bloom I won't agrue with you that it CAN work if implimented correctly, but I don't think government can do it. They raid the SS fund and everything goes haywire. And the people who screwed it up are long since gone. There is just no accountability in government anymore. As for Enron, what they did was illegal and downright dispicable.
If people save money all their life and put it into a low risk fund, it can easily beat out whatever social security can do for you, even in a bad economy. CATO just did a huge study to prove it. I don't make a lot of money by any means, but I save 6% in a retirement fund. If you are smart and make your money work hard for you, you can save up a very nice retirement. We don't live in a perfect world and I know not everyone can do that. But its unrealistic to think we can save everyone.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Tue Mar 27, 2012 7:22 AM
Re: Bloom Hilda

I like my people meadium rare with a side of fava beans
Comment: #7
Posted by: SCOTT
Fri May 11, 2012 5:07 PM
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