Japan's Population Nosedive

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Japan's Population Nosedive

Steven Lagerfeld

What can we learn from a shrinking Japan?

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2m 25sec

Armies, economics, and leaders all shape the course of nations, but in the long run nothing compares to the power of babies. After decades of worrying about having too many of them, we’re now worried about not having enough. Nicholas Eberstadt’s piece on Japan’s population decline from our Spring issue offers a bit of perverse comfort. Japan’s dire demographic situation is so unusual, says the American Enterprise Institute fellow, that its experience has few parallels in the West. In just the next few decades, the Japanese are headed toward a 20 percent population decline.

Anxiety about population trends is widespread—it may explain why Martin Walker’s generally optimistic article on global demographic changes has long been a top traffic draw on the WQ website. Another symptom of demographic anxiety is Steven Philip Kramer’s “Baby Gap” article (gated) in Foreign Affairs. Kramer, a professor at the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces who did some of his research as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argues that governments can turn the demographic tide. France and Sweden have led the way, he says, by adapting ambitious policies to help women reconcile work and family: public preschools, generous family leave, and various family allowances. All of this is expensive, consuming four percent of gross domestic product. And neither country has quite attained replacement level fertility. But, Kramer notes, they’re better off than many other European countries, not to mention Japan.

According to a report by three researchers at the East-West Center, Tokyo hasn’t been a slouch on the pronatalist front. Parents get a year of paid leave between them; public child care services are lavishly subsidized, though waiting lists are long. The East-West researchers say Japan’s “work culture” and “inflexible employment practices” discourage people from having children. (The image on this page shows a certification logo the government awards to companies that “actively promote countermeasures to the falling birthrate.”) Corporate jobs demand long hours and lots of socializing. Workers pay dearly for departing from conventional pathways. A Japanese professional woman who takes a few years off to raise her children and then returns to work part time loses more than $3 million in lifetime income.

Eberstadt is rightly skeptical of “birth bribes.” Values and norms matter more than dollars and cents. In Japan, marriage rates are down, divorce rates are up, and fewer people even say they want to have children. Government policies can change people’s beliefs and behavior, but not much, and not quickly. We don’t even know which ones might work best. The United States still has a growing population, but Japan’s dilemma should prompt us to think ahead.

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