July 16, 2009

NO FAITHFUL, NO FERTILITY:

Why Japan Isn’t Rising: It's mellowing as its population ages. (Daniel Gross, Jul 16, 2009, Newsweek)

Japan's population peaked in 2004 at about 127.8 million and is projected to fall to 89.9 million by 2055. The ratio of working-age to elderly Japanese fell from 8 to 1 in 1975 to 3.3 to 1 in 2005 and may shrivel to 1.3 to 1 in 2055. "In 2055, people will come to work when they have time off from long-term care," said Kiyoaki Fujiwara, director of economic policy at the Japan Business Federation.

Such a decline is cataclysmic for an indebted country that values infrastructure and personal service. (Who is going to maintain the trains, pay for social benefits, slice sushi at the Tsukiji fish market?) The obvious answers—encourage immigration and a higher birthrate—have proved difficult, even impossible, for this conservative society. In the U.S., foreign-born workers make up 15 percent of the workforce; in Japan, it's 1 percent. And, official protestations to the contrary, they're not particularly welcome. One columnist I met compared the standard Japanese attitude toward immigrants to that of the French right-winger Jean--Marie Le Pen. In the 1990s, descend-ants of Japanese who had emigrated to South America early in the 20th century returned to replace retiring factory workers. Now that unemployment is on the rise, Japan is offering to pay the airfare for those who wish to return home.

Japan doesn't particularly want to import new citizens, but it doesn't seem to want to manufacture them, either. It's become harder to support a family on a single income, and young people are living at home for longer. And Japan isn't particularly friendly to working mothers—pre-K day care is not widely available, and the phrase "work-family balance" doesn't seem to have a Japanese translation. (The directory of the Japanese Business Federation, a showcase of old guys in suits, makes the Republican Senate caucus look like a Benetton ad.) The upshot: a chronically low birthrate. Too often, demographic change was described to me as a zero-sum game—rather than being seen as potential job creators, women and immigrants are often seen as taking jobs from men.

Chalk it up to age, or to culture, but Japan strikes me as strangely passive about the huge changes it is facing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 16, 2009 4:32 PM
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