• Toby Irwin

Japan's Demographic Crisis

Japan is facing a demographic crisis. In 2010, the country’s population peaked at around 128.5 million people, though since 2011 has been in constant decline. Between 2018 and 2019 the population fell by 0.26%, a realised yearly loss of 330,587 people. In addition to this, the median age has been increasing unhindered since records began, from 23.6 in 1955 to 39.4 in 1995, to 46.7 in 2019 (1). If this trend continues, Japan is set to lose around 30% of its population in the next few decades, and what remains is likely to be increasingly elderly. Concerning the demographic transition model, Japan would fit into Stage Four, where both low birth rates and low death rates (or often lower birth rates than death rates) will undercut any natural increase in the national population.

Tokyo is seeking to rebalance population trends through things like immigration. However, comparatively speaking, it remains low. Yearly migrants into Japan are around 50,000. For comparison, the UK has over three times as many inward migrants as Japan despite having half the population size (2). Regardless of what one may think of immigration in places like the UK, for policymakers in Japan it represents a very important route for controlling demography. In December last year, the Japan Times noted the introduction of two new visa types for making immigration more accessible.

At the moment, there are five criteria for achieving a visa in Japan, including specialisation of vocational skills, heritage, traineeships, economic partnership agreements and activities linked to visa status (often students). New plans would extend this to temporary five year stay for low skill workers (who could not bring their family), and high skilled workers who could both stay permanently and bring their family (3). One could perhaps comment that this is a cautious plan to balance an increase in population without compromising on ‘undesirable’ immigration. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen, my thoughts however would be that it is unlikely immigration can absolutely compensate domestic decline, particularly given that immigration would need to increase six-fold to adequately offset the falling demographic.

It almost goes without saying that a steady population is necessary for the maintenance of a strong state, and one could further extend that a stable Japan is a prerequisite for stability in East Asia. A decreasing workforce is going to come under increasing strain in providing for the increasing elderly (or often termed ‘dependent’) population. Tokyo may soon find itself having to decide between its regional commitments and extensive social security plans for its own people (4).

(1) https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/japan-population/

(2) https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/uk-population/

(3) https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2018/12/04/commentary/japan-commentary/new-immigration-policy-japan/#.XQoO_hZKiUk

(4) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/02/japans-population-is-shrinking-what-does-it-mean-for-the-economy/

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.