Japan's Coming Demographic Crisis

By Michael Auslin

Japanese are disappearing in slow motion and so far, there is no rescue plan. Every January, those turning 20 over the next twelve months celebrate their Coming-of-Age Day at shrines across the nation. Yet each year there are fewer of them. This year, only 1.2 million youth will turn 20, half as many as in 1970.

On U.N. calculations, the 2010 population of 127 million will shrink by a fifth, to 101.6 million in 2050. Moreover, the decline speeds up over time, with the population dropping by 6.65% between 2015 and 2030, but plummeting a whopping 13.4% from 2030 to 2050-far and away the worst growth projection in the world. Consider that Pakistan is expected to nearly double its population, to 335 million, in the same period.

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While the state plays at most an indirect role in childbearing, family planning does reflect broad social trends. In Japan, the whole demographic of pregnancy is changing. In 1970, the average age of women having their first child was 25.6; in 2007, that had jumped to 29.4. Even more dramatically, in 1970, half of all babies were to women in their mid- to late-twenties; today, fully 38% of babies are born to women in their early thirties. This means that fewer women are willing or able to bear second and third children when they start so late.

This is partly due to the difference between how older generations lived in their twenties and thirties and the lifestyle of the youth today. The average age of marriage is steadily increasing, up to 28.3 for women and 30.1 for men. This has led to an entire generation of women marrying later, if at all. In the early 1970s, over 1 million couples wed annually-300,000 fewer couples marry today.

At both ends of the demographic spectrum, single-person households are increasing rapidly in Japan, from just 600,000 in 1975 to over 4 million today, with the majority of these households being single, elderly women. Youngsters who remain unmarried are called "parasite singles," often living at home with their aging parents.

That there are so many single, elderly households in Japan is due to the fact that it has the world's longest life expectancy, thus compounding the fall in birth rates. Japanese women currently have a life expectancy of 86 years-this is expected to rise to a record-shattering 91 years by 2050; men are expected to live to 83.5 years by the same date. Moreover, by 2050, nearly 40 percent of the population will be aged 65 years or older.

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Mr. Auslin is the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal and has been reprinted with the author's permission.

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