In many parts of the world today the main population concern is that there are too many people and not enough resources to support everyone. In Japan there is also worry that with a population in excess of 123 million, the number of people is too high for a resource-scarce country with little flat land for them to live. In fact, the population has already increased four-fold since the time of the Meiji Restoration. Within the next twenty years, however, demographers believe that the population of Japan will increase only slowly to a peak of around 130 million, and that it will then start to decline. The trouble is that while the problem of over-population appears to have been solved, the process which will bring about this fall in the number of people will itself generate a new and potentially more serious problem. This is the problem of population aging, also known as ‘the graying of Japan’.
In 1990, about one in eight people in Japan were aged 65 years or more. This level was already the highest in Asia, although somewhat lower than in most developed European countries. The problem is that the pace of aging is going on in Japan faster than in any other country in the world. By the year 2025 it is estimated that as many as one in four of the Japanese population will be aged 65 or more years, a ratio much higher than anywhere else.
On the surface it may seem that a higher proportion of people surviving to old age, in a country which already enjoys the highest life expectancy anywhere, should reflect a generally healthy state of affairs in society. Why should aging be viewed as a problem? The fact is that aging is not caused by longer life expectancy alone; rather it is mainly due in Japan to a falling birth rate. Already, for the past several years, the average number of births per family has been below replacement level (assuming that at least two children are required to sustain family size through each generation). The main reasons for this relate to the shortage of living space in urban areas and to the very high cost of child rearing. The outcome, however, is that enormous social and economic burdens will be placed on a declining number in the younger generations to look after their elders.
The heart of the problem, therefore, is that more and more elderly people in future will require greater economic and social welfare provision from a workforce which is getting smaller and smaller. There will be greater demands on public expenditure, for example, to look after the needs of old people, but proportionately less revenue will be collected through income or salaries tax. There will be greater pressures placed on housewives to stay at home and look after bed-ridden elderly, but this will take females from the workforce and so reduce household incomes further. Old people may decide to pay professional workers to look after their needs, perhaps in a care-center or retirement home, but this will use up savings which have to date proved such an important ingredient for Japan’s economic ‘miracle’. Whichever way, there will be a huge cost to the government, to industry, and to the people as a result of ‘the graying of Japan’.
So seriously does the government view these implications that aging has already been described as one of the three great challenges facing Japan in the 21st century. Tax and pension reforms have already been enacted, most notably the introduction in 1989 of a controversial 3% sales tax, with the specific intention of reducing some of the anticipated problems which will be generated by aging.
Such problems lie not only in the future, however, for there are many parts of Japan where severe difficulties relating to aging exist now. Rural areas and some inner-city districts which have been affected by an exodus of young people in recent years have experienced a ‘speeding up’ of the aging process. Already some rural municipalities have population structures where one person in three is aged 65 years or over. Unfortunately these areas are where the greatest levels of external assistance is required, for old people living alone in remote areas cannot look after themselves so readily. Already for them, however, the problem has been recognized too late and so too little has been provided. For the rest of the nation, the problem may be just as serious in future but the answers, hopefully, will be easier to find.