Like many western nations, Japan is facing a demographic nightmare that portends a doomsday scenario for its future. As the Japanese live longer and the birth rate keeps falling, the country won't be able to meet the health care needs of a rapidly aging population as the workforce continues to shrink.
International Business Times spokes to an expert on demographic issues to discuss Japan’s dilemma.
Peter H. Liotta PhD is the author of The Real Population Bomb: Megacities, Global Security & the Map of the Future, which has just been published. He is also Professor of Humanities at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.
IB TIMES: The Japanese government has warned that it faces a demographic nightmare – its population will shrink by one-third by the year 2060, while its elderly people will surge in size to 40 percent of the total. How and why did this happen? Was the government caught by surprise?
LIOTTA: Demographic outcomes never happen by surprise. They are, so to speak, “in the pipeline” and have been so for generations.
In Japan, couples are choosing to marry later (if at all), and women -- who have been traditionally “bound” in a highly traditional, disciplined society -- now establish careers and professional lives for themselves. A generation or two ago, this would have been unthinkable - today, it is merely radical.
IB TIMES: If the younger working population has to support an ever-increasing population of retirees, will the country go bankrupt soon?
LIOTTA: No, but something “must give.” The easiest answer is that Japan must allow migrant workers to become citizens and assimilate into Japanese society. This simple solution is precisely what Japan refuses to opt for.
Japanese culture -- indeed her civilization -- draws from the very essence of, if we could use this term, “Japan-ness.”
To open Japan to a myriad of ethnicities and identities -- the very realities that make the United States the most sought after place for migrants in the world. The U.S. -- warts and all -- is the place of a thousand voices. Japan is not.
Yet Japan, perhaps more than any other state on the face of the earth, remains the most innovative and creative of societies. As an economic geographer and a demographer -- I can say this with certainty.
IB TIMES: Can you elaborate on this?
LIOTTA: Japan has no natural resources. This traditionally has forced her to search outside her borders for access and opportunity. What caused the Second World War in the Pacific --- Japan’s conquest for access to and control of resources -- is the very reality that led her to innovate, spur creativity, and forge into the future during the post-war period.
IB TIMES: Discuss how Japan’s ban on immigration has exacerbated the demographic problem.
LIOTTA: Despite serious demographic and economic needs for immigrant labor, Japan has maintained its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act since 1990. Though revised several times, this act supports Japan’s long-standing ban on unskilled foreign labor and imposes harsh penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrant workers.
As Michael Werner noted in “Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity”, nonetheless, there are “loopholes” to bypass this seemingly rigid law. The Japanese government tacitly allows “side-door” means for the importation of unskilled labor under visa categories intended specifically for other purposes such as “student,” “trainee,” “entertainer,” or for members of the Japanese Nikkei Diaspora.
IB TIMES: Why do the Japanese have such high life expectancy rates? A superb medical system and healthy habits?
LIOTTA: Japan’s average life expectancy is now 83 years -- the highest in the world. There seem to be specific reasons for this, not necessarily associated with a superb medical system. Japanese have a low rate of heart disease, apparently due to an overall low-fat diet and lower rates of alcohol consumption by Japanese males -- even though cigarettes smoking is comparatively quite high compared with other countries. Sometimes called the “Japanese smoking-lung cancer paradox,” these factors (as well as genetic predisposition to reduced rate of lung cancer) may help explain higher life expectancies for the Japanese people.
Overall, the Japanese example of low-fat diet and reduced alcohol consumption could lead to longer life expectancies across the board for citizens of any state.
IB TIMES: The Japanese Prime Minister proposes higher taxes and pension reforms? Will these measures make any real difference with the country’s problems?
LIOTTA: Yes, they could make a difference. If life expectancy is so long for the Japanese, it makes little sense for pensioners to retire at the early ages they now do.
Equally, higher taxes will support increased government capacity to attempt to handle this severe demographic challenge of longer life expectancies and reduced fertility rates.
It is critical to stress that no clear answer exists -- except the need to recognize that “things cannot remain as they are” for Japan.
This demographic challenge represents Japan’s greatest national security challenge for the future.
IB TIMES: Have young Japanese people simply stopped getting married and having children? If so, why?
LIOTTA: Basically, yes. Due to exorbitant housing costs, many youths remain longer at home -- with their families. Also, as Japanese women create and establish their independence in a traditionally male-dominated society, they choose intentionally to marry later (if at all) and refrain from having children until later in life.
IB TIMES: What can Japan do to prevent this demographic apocalypse?
LIOTTA: Something has to give. The easiest solution would appear be to allow immigration immediately. But this solution will never work. Japan, let us be honest, is a civilization unto itself. It cannot integrate wide cultural diversity, unlike the United States or India.
IBTIMES: Demographic problems are spread across the developed world, no?
LIOTTA: Indeed, let us consider some of the extraordinary changes that are occurring.
In the twentieth century, the median age was 24; by 2050, in the developed world, the median age will be 51, with Japan and Germany averaging 53 to 55. In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47; in 2000, it was 77. (And, as we have considered, life expectancy in Japan is 83.)
If the “elderly” continue to be active, it will have major economic impact and benefit for societies. In Germany and Italy, 4 percent of males 65 and older are still in the labor force; in the U.S., 17 percent are still working.
The U.S. “solution” seems to be part of a larger overall effective response to these demographic challenges.
My personal favorite “quirky” solution stems from Singapore, where former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew suggested that each taxpaying worker be given two votes to balance the lobbying power of retired elders. While not a democratic solution, certainly, the actively employed population of state in this case would determine the fate of the state.
The problems Japan struggles with to prevent its demographic doom are emblematic of the challenges Western Europe faces as well -- where over the coming decades, the population of Europe will decline radically.
In Europe, with a replacement fertility rate of 1.75 (where population replacement rate must exceed 2.1), 80 million fewer Europeans will exist over the next decades -- a decline greater than the “Black Death.”
Yet, this time, the cause will not be because of the plague -- it will be because of human choice, and human will.