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Japanese society can hardly claim to be taken by surprise by these trends. It takes decades for a drop in fertility rates to become a decrease in population. Indeed, the country's birth rate actually fell below replacement rate in the early 1970s.

There is no parallel in modern times for the population drop Japan will soon face. There is no way to accurately predict what this will do to its ability to grow food, maintain its industrial base or defend itself. On the positive side, it is conceivable that a burst of innovation and automation globally may help counter Japan's future demographic challenges. Dystopian visions of robots running more of society may become a reality.

Policy makers have failed to adequately prepare. Most other societies would make up the demographic shortfall by encouraging immigration. Yet Japan has negligible legal immigration, due in part to onerous laws. Unregistered immigrants abound from China, North Korea, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. These less-skilled laborers work in industries such as construction and service industry. But they do not stay for long term, speak the language or assimilate even moderately into society.

The problem is that many Japanese do not want to see Western-style immigration, fearing that their culture will be irrevocably changed should non-Japanese get a foothold in society. Instead Japan uses immigrants as temporary workers, and forgoes the benefits of integrating them into educational, economic or political life.

The core issue of how the nation will continue to prosper with ever fewer citizens is just not under consideration. A national debate on the matter is the need of the hour. If they don't want to change their attitude to immigration, they should realize that they will have to change their lifestyle-and allocate resources to helping the elderly, or building more robots. Chances are, once they understand what's at stake, many Japanese will open up to the alternative: allowing more people in.

Conservative Japanese will no doubt bring up the matter of culture. A national identity crisis will be familiar to those in many western European countries with high immigration rates, but Japan's homogeneous society has so far avoided dealing with these questions. Given current trends, it may not have the luxury of time to decide how it wants to keep its culture intact if its society is shrinking.