Japan’s population decreased by nearly 1 million people. Yikes.

Japan Is Running Out of People

Japan Is Running Out of People

The Slatest
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Feb. 26 2016 12:23 PM

Japan Is Running Out of People

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Children play by Kawaguchi Lake overlooking Mount Fuji in Fujikawaguchiko, Japan, on May 13, 2015.

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Japan’s population decreased by nearly 1 million people over the past five years according to the country’s latest census, the first recorded population decline for the country since the 1920s. Officials expect deaths to continue to outnumber births for the foreseeable future. The largest drop, unsurprisingly, was in Fukushima, site of the 2011 nuclear disaster. At current rates, by 2060, Japan’s population will be one-third smaller than it is now and 40 percent of its citizens will be older than 65, a grim prospect for an already struggling economy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has introduced some policies aimed at increasing the birth rate, including tax incentives for having children and increasing access to child care. Measures to address the hostility toward working mothers in many Japanese companies would also help, and the country is making some progress on that front. But the government is probably too late to stop the decline altogether.

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One obvious solution to Japan’s population problem would be foreign immigration, but Abe has shown little interest in loosening the country’s notoriously strict immigration laws. Foreigners account for only 2 percent of Japan’s population, which includes many ethnic Koreans who have lived in the country for generations. While the government is considering letting in more foreigners, Abe has spoken with pride of Japan being an “extremely homogenous” country, so the kind of influx that might stabilize the population is unlikely.

Fertility rates are falling in virtually every developed country. Without immigration, the U.S. population would also be declining. As people get richer and more educated, they tend to have fewer children. As life expectancies increase, populations get grayer. Thanks to a number of factors including density, education, the high cost of living, and a particularly irreligious population, this is happening faster in Japan than in most places.

But dubious trend stories aside, there’s nothing that weird about Japan’s situation. It’s not an outlier; it’s a preview.   

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs.