A People Ebbs – The Demographic Trials and Tribulations of Japan

When I arrived in the far northern Japanese town of Teshio, I was initially struck by two things: one was the warmth of the people, and the other was the remoteness of the place that I had found myself in.

Teshio has a population of under 4000 people and sits near the northern tip of Hokkaido; it is in many ways similar to the rural community that I grew up in here in the UK, but it also faces some of the distinctive problems of rural Japan, with a population that is both ageing, and decreasing. The average age of the population in Teshio, I was told, is 68.5 years. The risk of the town slowly disappearing over the coming decades is taken so seriously by the government that an official from the Prime Minister’s Office has been sent in an attempt to aid the local administration with their revitalisation effort.

In many ways Japan is one of the most extreme examples of a country with an ageing population; you need only visit and you become aware of it very quickly. For example, during my initial trip from the airport I had to change at Tokyo Station to board a Shinkansen bullet train to another part of the country, but I was immediately struck by the number of working men who appeared to be over the age of 60 and the lack of people younger than their mid-20s – and this was in the metropolitan sprawl of Tokyo; the further out I travelled, the clearer became the size of the demographic hurdle facing the country.

Most people living in the UK will be aware of the phenomenon that is an ageing population – a trip to your local supermarket is enough to see that many people are indeed old and getting older. As is common knowledge, this is the case with many of the world’s wealthy nations; a rising life expectancy meets with a declining birth rate to create a situation where over time a nation’s median age rises.

The phenomenon raises many challenges for the future: the continued lack of comprehensive social care provision through the NHS threatens the wellbeing of future generations, and possibly even the NHS itself, yet the bulk of these challenges are on track to be addressed, not least because of the high net migration that the UK has experienced over the last decade, which has served to boost the population and birth rate significantly.

The result of this approach however has only served to alienate many, with a desire to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders providing a key draw for many to vote to leave the European Union in June’s referendum.

The Japanese population however has been falling since 2010 when it peaked at around 128 million people; it has since fallen by one million, with projections from the country’s own National Institute of Population and Social Security Research indicating that by 2020 the population will be declining by this figure annually. The same organisation forecasts a population as low as 86 million by 2060. If these figures are not scary enough the percentage of the population over the age of 65 is already 26.3% according to the World Bank, whereas for the UK the corresponding figure is 17.8%.

Such a state of affairs is deeply curious, especially given the high standards of living that the country enjoys. The primary reasons for Japan’s slow death remain a low birth rate and incredibly low rates of net migration.

Working in tandem with these forces is an equally worrying trend: the population of major cities continues to rise while property prices have fallen or remained static, the result being an even more drastic depopulation of rural areas. It is this that is hurting communities such as Teshio.

IMG_2284The Tokyo skyline, the city is part of the world’s most populous metropolitan area. 

The environment in Teshio is undoubtedly beautiful – it is a coastal town that gradually gives way to a blanket of green cattle fields moving inland. Whilst there, I attended a workshop run in association with the HLAB summer schools in Japan that focused upon revitalising local communities. High school students from around Hokkaido came prepared with ideas and presented them to the group. All of the students spoke about the uncertainty faced by workers in the town’s primarily agriculture- and fishing-based economy, something that they would wish to avoid. Such a state of affairs only serves to increase the attraction of cities.

One high school student remarked that in her nearby town migrant workers from the Philippines had become involved in cattle farming and had helped to boost the workforce and keep producers in business. When I asked the group whether or not the country should open to migration on a larger scale another student raised a concern about possible disruption to Japan’s ethnically homogeneous society (98.5% of the population is ethnically Japanese) and the lack of safeguards to ensure that many migrants would not just join the flows of people towards more stable jobs in cities, and thus make no difference to rural communities. It reminded me of a similar problem raised by a friend that I had met up with in Tokyo – when I raised the topic over a drink he remarked that many in the country lacked faith in immigration as a solution because recent attempts to open up jobs in rural areas to people from other east Asian countries had simply seen people arrive then disappear, presumably to work in the countries’ sprawling and still growing metropolitan areas.

Aside from this, an interesting solution suggested by the students was for greater cross-generational cooperation between those retiring or closing down businesses and young people seeking to remain in the area.

It was the issue of migration that particularly interested me, however. In Europe it has provided the default answer for governments seeking to manage demographic challenges, yet currently net migration in Japan is virtually nil. Official statistics recorded little change in the percentage of foreigners amongst the country’s population between 2011 and 2014; it stood a little over 1.6%.

During my time in Tokyo, myself and a group of journalists were given the opportunity to meet with Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. When I asked about the declining population issue he referred to the approaches that the government’s flagship ‘Abenomics’ set of policies had taken in an attempt to resolve the issues caused by the country’s ‘secular stagnation’, the flattening of growth that has occurred in Japan’s economy since the mid 1990s. The economic conditions had only served to cause a reduction in consumption and increase in part-time work, with the result being people marrying later and the birth rate declining.

At the core of this was an effort to boost the birth rate from its present level of 1.46 per woman to 1.8, but even this would not end the trend of depopulation. The other primary avenues of response were through increasing the number of women in work, raising the retirement age and some relaxation of the country’s strict residency regulations.

Based upon the government’s own statistics there has been some success in achieving these objectives. The number of women in employment has increased by a million since 2012 and acts have been passed to induce firms to curb the standard practice of long working hours.

An act aimed at relaxing the requirement for migrants to be classed as ‘highly skilled professionals’ in order to obtain residency took effect in April 2015.

However, Mr Taniguchi himself acknowledged that his country was ‘at a crossroads’ and although steps were being taken to encourage more people to live and work in the country, he did not believe that Japan was ever likely to become an immigrant society, admitting that the topic remained very much taboo for Japanese politicians.

IMG_2251Many of Japan’s urban areas and cities such as Sapporo have continued to grow despite the falling population. 

The nation’s strong, historically closed culture and long-lasting institutions served to prove his point – a construction company from Osaka that finally folded in 2006 apparently traces its history back to 578AD. With the country’s homogeneity and stability, the perception for many is that large-scale immigration will only serve to upset this status quo.

Provisions are also in place to try and spread Abenomics’ core purpose of renewed economic growth to the regions and places such as Teshio. The principal tools that the government currently speaks of here are those of tourism and leveraging the strengths of the country’s rural areas.

In Teshio one man I spoke to offered some support for this approach. He had lived for the majority of his life in Tokyo but had recently moved to the area in an effort to improve his health; the local environment and natural springs he said had since improved his quality of life. He also added that many already visited the countryside at weekends but the trick was getting them to stay.

An alternative solution came from the sharing with the students. A talk was given by Yuri Tazawa who spends her time advocating her solution to depopulation in rural areas, teleworking. This consisted of e-offices where workers meet digitally through Skype-like conversations and can see the status of their colleagues and the tasks that they are completing within a virtual work environment. She argued that such an arrangement would result in people being able to live in places like Teshio yet work for a Tokyo based company; the need to migrate to the city for work could be removed through technology. In discussions with other participants afterward it became clear that reaction was mixed. Personally I felt that it may offer some solutions, especially for parents seeking to balance work and family. That being said, plenty of similar solutions have long existed in most offices and are yet to dramatically alter the office hours for most workers.

IMG_2226Hokkaido is renowned for its high quality dairy products, the sector is however struggling to attract young workers. 

The area is very rich indeed in resources; the travelling group I was with were served the best buffet of seafood I could ever hope to enjoy, with the local dairy produce also renowned for its quality. But from the comments that I got from many of the high school students, it still does not look promising for many rural industries – very few had any desire to become involved despite their obvious passion for their local area. It seemed that they would be following their previous generations into the suburbs.

My experiences in Japan left me conflicted. I found myself full of admiration for the engagement that was occurring at different levels in an attempt to address the issues, but at the same time I realised that the greater foreign involvement which this country’s demographic challenges demand cannot be delayed for much longer.

This piece was a result of an innovative, intellectual, and far-reaching journalistic experiment: 10 foreign student journalists, invited by the Prime Minister’s office and hosted by the HLAB summer school, sought to explore and illuminate Japan over a span of 19 days. Our projects eventually spanned topics ranging from Japanese views of success and failure to the robust Japanese artisan culture. See some of the other pieces here