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Japan's Declining Population: Clearly a Problem, But What's the Solution?

Four experts speak to the multidimensional nature of Japan's declining population.

Date & Time

Apr. 24, 2008
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


The four experts who spoke at an April 24 Asia Program seminar on Japan's declining population agreed that the problem was multidimensional: Japanese men continue to face the pressures of long hours at work, and are increasingly reluctant to marry; women are choosing to marry later, have less children, or not marry at all; the government has rejected immigration as a solution to replenish a declining population; and official policy is instead looking to technology, mainly in the form of humanoid robots, to resolve the declining population problem.

Leonard Schoppa, professor in the department of politics at the University of Virginia, began his presentation by noting the overall problem: by 2055, the working age population will have shrunk by 30 million (from 127 million today), and there will be 10 million more elderly. This is a future in which there will be more than one retiree per actual worker. Schoppa also pointed out that although Japan's population started declining in the 1970s, official statistics always judged the phenomenon to be temporary, and predicted a bounce-back. By 1989, the fertility rate was 1.57 (it is now 1.3), and it was clear it would continue falling. This was when the Japanese government began to perceive the falling population rate as a problem. Initial feminist reaction disagreed, arguing that the situation was all to the good: women now had more choices than simply marrying and having children.

Schoppa argued that ordinary Japanese women, while not really having a voice in this debate, nonetheless maintained the "exit" choice of not having children. Schoppa said there were no grass-roots groups arguing for an option for women to be able to both work and have children. While statistics reveal that just 9 percent of single, unmarried Japanese women state they do not want to have children, in actuality 25 percent end up childless. The government has moved to increase childcare services and provide more generous child leave, but not to any degree that would result in significant change.

Robin LeBlanc, associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, described the plight of the Japanese male. "Oyaji" means the typical Japanese guy, the soul of the nation who works hard and is the breadwinner for the family. "Oyaji" had traditionally been a positive concept, but now the term is becoming less so. This is because, explained LeBlanc, the Japanese male is under great stress. He is still supposed to be the main breadwinner, but often feels trapped in his job, where his employer still demands very long hours, making it difficult, if not impossible, for him to support his wife in household and child-rearing chores. In 2005, noted LeBlanc, 35 percent of men aged 35-39 had not married, whereas the percentage for women was only 18.4. Economics is a factor as well: for those men making under $40,000 year, over 75 percent are unmarried. More ominously, the suicide rate for men is twice as high as for women in Japan. The conclusion is inescapable that for young men in Japan, the burden of marriage is growing, and therefore they are resisting the institution altogether.

Keiko Yamanaka, lecturer in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, described current Japanese immigration policy. Since 1990, Japan has mandated that only skilled foreigners can be employed in Japan; no unskilled foreign laborers can be employed. In reality, however, especially in the manufacturing sector, there is a need for unskilled labor in jobs at the lower levels that Japanese will not take. Accordingly, there are over half a million unskilled immigrant laborers in that category in Japan today. This is not enough to solve any declining population problem. Nonetheless, asserted Yamanaka, the living conditions for such workers are very poor, and she urged the Japanese government to introduce measures to improve their livelihood.

Jennifer Robertson, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, presented an official Japanese government solution to the declining population problem: robots. This is a conscious policy, she noted, of pursuing automation over immigration. First pushed by the Shinzo Abe government in 2007 under the rubric of "Innovation 25," this policy asserts that by 2025, the average Japanese family will consist of a husband, wife, the husband's parents, one son, one daughter, and one robot. The robot will do most of the household cleaning, prepare the meals, provide whatever care is needed to the grandparents, and perform baby-sitting tasks. This humanoid robot will essentially be a surrogate for the wife/mother, accordingly freeing her to have more children.

Robertson noted that in Japan, the belief is that the robotics industry will be to this century what the auto industry was to the last. Twenty-six billion dollars has already been allocated over the next 10 years to the development of this industry, and one goal, within the next 10 years, is to develop "intelligent" robots capable of decision making. Already, 62 types of household robots are commercially available in Japan. Humanoid robots are regarded as preferable to immigrants: they have no cultural differences and do not carry the baggage of negative historical memories (e.g., Koreans and Chinese). Robots also help perpetuate the myth of Japan as a homogenous nation. Robertson pointed to public opinion polls as confirming these beliefs. She stated that these policies are not without their critics, however, citing one blogger as commenting that Japan's growing dependence on robots indicates that Japan is "spiritually impoverished."

Drafted by Mark Mohr.


Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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