Aging of Japan

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Historic population of Japan (1920-2010) with projected population (2011-2060).

The aging of Japan is thought to outweigh all other nations, as the country is purported to have the highest proportion of elderly citizens. According to 2014 estimates, 33.0% of the Japanese population is above age 60, 25.9% are aged 65 or above, 12.5% are aged 75 or above.[1] The dramatic aging of Japanese society as a result of sub-replacement fertility rates and high life expectancy is expected to continue, and the population began to decline in 2011. The government of Japan has responded to concerns about the stress that demographic changes place on the economy and social services with policies intended to restore the fertility rate and make the elderly more active in society.[2]

Aging dynamics[edit]

The number of Japanese people aged 65 years or older nearly quadrupled in the last forty years, to 33 million in 2014, accounting for 26% of Japan's population. In the same period, the number of children (aged 14 and younger) decreased from 24.3% of the population in 1975 to 12.8% in 2014.[1] The number of elderly people surpassed the number of children in 1997, and sales of adult diapers surpassed diapers for babies in 2014.[3] This change in the demographic makeup of Japanese society, referred to as population aging (kōreikashakai, 高齢化社会),[4] has taken place in a shorter span of time than in any other country.

According to projections of the population with the current fertility rate, over 65s will account for 40% of the population by 2060,[5][6] and the total population will fall by a third from 128 million in 2010 to 87 million in 2060.[7] Economists at Tohoku University established a countdown to national extinction, which estimates that Japan will have only one remaining child in 3776.[8] These predictions prompted a pledge by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to halt population decline at 100 million.[2][3]


Birth and death rates of Japan since 1950. The drop in 1966 was due to it being a "hinoe uma" year which is viewed as ill-omened in the Japanese Zodiac.[9]
Further information: Marriage in Japan

The aging of the Japanese population is a result of one of the world's lowest fertility rates combined with the highest life expectancy.

Japan's total fertility rate (the number of children born by each woman in her lifetime) has been below the replacement threshold of 2.1 since 1974 and reached a historic low of 1.26 in 2005.[1] Experts believe that signs of a recovery (1.43 in 2013) reflect the expiration of a "tempo effect," as fertility rates accommodate a major shift in the timing and number of children, rather than any positive change.[10]

A range of economic and cultural factors contribute to the decline in childbirth: later and fewer marriages, poor work–life balance, increased participation of women in the workforce, a decline in wages and lifetime employment along with a high gender pay gap, small living spaces, and the high cost of raising a child.[11][12][13]

Although most married couples have two or more children,[14] a growing number of young people postpone or entirely reject marriage and parenthood. Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of the population who had never married increased from 22% to almost 30%, even as the population continued to age,[1] and by 2035 one in four people will not marry during their childbearing years.[15] The Japanese sociologist Masahiro Yamada coined the term parasite singles (パラサイトシングル parasaito shinguru?) for unmarried adults in their late 20s and 30s who continue to live with their parents.[16]

Japan's life expectancy is the highest in the world at 84 years (87 for women, 80 for men). Life expectancy at birth has increased rapidly from the end of World War II, when the average was 54 years for women and 50 for men, as a result of improvements in medicine and nutrition, and the percentage of the population aged 65 years and older has increased steadily from the 1950s. The advancement of life expectancy translated into a depressed mortality rate until the 1980s, but mortality has increased again to 10.1 per 1000 people in 2013, the highest since 1950.[1] The leading causes of death are cancer, heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease, a pattern common to industrialized societies.


Age composition of Japan's historic (1940–2010) and projected population (2011–2060).

Demographic trends are altering relations within and across generations, creating new government responsibilities and changing many aspects of Japanese social life. The aging and decline of the working-age population has triggered concerns about the future of the nation's workforce, the potential for economic growth, and the solvency of the national pension and healthcare services.[17]


A smaller population could make the country's crowded metropolitan areas more livable, and the stagnation of economic output might still benefit a shrinking workforce. However, the low birthrate and high life expectancy has also inverted the standard population pyramid, forcing a narrowing base of young people to provide and care for a bulging older cohort even as they try to form families of their own.[18] In 2014, the aged dependency ratio (the ratio of people over 65 to those age 15–65, indicating the ratio of the dependent elderly population to those of working age) was 40%, meaning two aged dependents for every five workers.[1] This is expected to increase to 60% by 2036 and to nearly 80% by 2060.[19]

Elderly Japanese have traditionally commended themselves to the care of their adult children, and government policies still encourage the creation of sansedai kazoku (三世代家族?, "three-generation households"), where a married couple cares for both children and parents. In 2015, 177,600 people between the ages of 15 and 29 were caring directly for an older family member.[20] However, the migration of young people into Japan's major cities, the entrance of women into the workforce, and the increasing cost of care for both young and old dependents have required new solutions, including nursing homes, adult daycare centers, and home health programs.[21] Every year Japan closes 400 primary and secondary schools, converting some of them to care centers for the elderly.[22] Many elderly people live alone and isolated, and every year thousands of deaths go unnoticed for days or even weeks, in a modern phenomenon known as kodoku-shi (孤独死?, "solitary death").[23]


The Greater Tokyo Area is virtually the only locality in Japan to see population growth, mostly due to internal migration from other parts of the country. Between 2005 and 2010 36 of Japan's 47 prefectures shrank by as much as 5%,[1] and many rural and suburban areas are struggling with an epidemic of abandoned homes (8 million across Japan).[24][25] Masuda Hiroya, a former Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications who heads the private think tank Japan Policy Council, estimated that about half the municipalities in Japan could disappear between now and 2040 as young people, especially young women, move from rural areas into Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, where around half of Japan's population is already concentrated.[26] The government is establishing a regional revitalization task force and focusing on developing regional hub cities, especially Sapporo, Sendai, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka.[27]

Internal migration and population decline have created a severe regional imbalance in electoral power, where the weight of a single vote depends on where it was cast. Some depopulated districts send three times as many representatives per voter to the National Diet as their growing urban counterparts. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Japan declared the disparities in voting power violate the Constitution, but the ruling conservative party, which relies on rural and older voters, has been slow to make the necessary realignment.[18][28][29]

The increasing proportion of elderly people has a major impact on government spending. As recently as the early-1970s, the cost of public pensions, health care and welfare services for the aged amounted to only about 6% of Japan's national income. In 1992 that portion of the national budget was 18%, and it is expected that by 2025 28% of national income will be spent on social welfare.[30] Because the incidence of chronic disease increases with age, the health care and pension systems are expected to come under severe strain. In the mid-1980s the government began to reevaluate the relative burdens of government and the private sector in health care and pensions, and it established policies to control government costs in these programs.


Main article: Economy of Japan
Real GDP change in Japan (1956 to 2008).

A graying workforce and a shortage of young workers since the 1980s has changed the character of work in Japan, from employment practices to benefits to the participation of women. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2002 that Japan would experience an 18% decrease in its workforce and 8% decrease in its consumer population by 2030, but the Japanese labor market is already under pressure to meet demands for workers, with 125 jobs for every 100 job seekers at the end of 2015, as older generations retire and younger ones shrink.[31]

Mounting labor shortages in the 1980s and 90s led many Japanese companies to increase the mandatory retirement age from 55 to 60 or 65, and today many allow their employees to continue working after official retirement. The growing number of retirement age people has put strain on the national pension system. In 1986, the government increased the age at which pension benefits begin from 60 to 65, and shortfalls in the pension system have encouraged many people of retirement age to remain in the workforce and driven some others into poverty.[30] The retirement age may go even higher in the future. A study by the UN Population Division released in 2000 found that Japan would need to raise its retirement age to 77 (or allow net immigration of 17 million by 2050) to maintain its worker-to-retiree ratio.[32][33]

Less desirable industries, such as agriculture and construction, are more threatened than others. The average farmer in Japan is 70-years-old,[34] and while about a third of construction workers are 55 or older, including many who expect to retire within the next ten years, only one in ten are younger than 30.[35][36]

The decline in working-aged cohorts may lead to a shrinking economy if productivity does not increase faster than the rate of Japan's decreasing workforce.[37] The OECD estimates that similar labor shortages in Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Sweden will depress the European Union's economic growth by 0.4 percentage points annually from 2000 to 2025, after which shortages will cost the EU 0.9 percentage points in growth. In Japan labor shortages will lower growth by 0.7 percentage points annually until 2025, after which Japan will also experience a 0.9 percentage points loss in growth.[38]

Government policies[edit]

The Japanese government is addressing demographic problems by developing policies to encourage fertility and keep more of its population, especially women and elderly, engaged in the workforce.[39] Incentives for family formation include expanded opportunities for childcare, new benefits for those who have children, and a state-sponsored dating service.[40][41] Some policies have focused on engaging more women in the workplace, including longer maternity leave and legal protections against pregnancy discrimination, known in Japan as matahara (マタハラ?, maternity harassment).[39][42] However, "Womenomics," the set of policies intended to bring more women into the workplace as part of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's economic recovery plan, has struggled to overcome cultural barriers and entrenched stereotypes.[43]

Work-life balance[edit]

Further information: Japanese work environment and Salaryman

Japan has focused its policies on the work-life balance with the goal of improving the conditions for increasing the birth rate. To address these challenges, Japan has established goals to define the ideal work-life balance that would provide the environment for couples to have more children with the passing of the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law, which took effect in June 2010.[44]

The law provides fathers with an opportunity to take up to eight weeks of leave after the birth of a child and allows employees with preschool-age children the following allowances: up to five days of leave in the event of a child’s injury or sickness, limits on the amount of overtime in excess of 24 hours per month based on an employee’s request, limits on working late at night based on an employee’s request, and opportunity for shorter working hours and flex time for employees.[44]

The goals of the law would strive to achieve the following results in 10 years are categorized by the female employment rate (increase from 65% to 72%), percentage of employees working 60 hours or more per week (decrease from 11% to 6%), rate of use of annual paid leave (increase from 47% to 100%), rate of child care leave (increase from 72% to 80% for females and .6% to 10% for men), and hours spent by men on child care and housework in households with a child under six years of age (increase from 1 hour to 2.5 hours a day).[44]

Comparisons with other countries[edit]

Japan's population is aging faster than any other country on the planet.[45] The population of those 65 years or older roughly doubled in 24 years, from 7.1% of the population in 1970 to 14.1% in 1994. The same increase took 61 years in Italy, 85 years in Sweden, and 115 years in France.[46] Japan also has more centenarians than any other country (58,820 in 2014, or 42.76 per 100,000 people). Almost one in five of the world's centenarians live in Japan, and 87% of them are women.[47]

In contrast to Japan, a more open immigration policy has allowed Australia, Canada, and the United States to grow their workforce despite low fertility rates.[38] An expansion of immigration is often rejected as a solution to population decline by Japan's political leaders and people. Reasons include a fear of foreign crime, a desire to preserve cultural traditions, and a belief in the ethnic and racial homogeneity of the Japanese nation.[48]

Japan is leading the world in aging demographics, but the other countries of East Asia are following a similar trend. In China, after decades of modernization and a one-child policy, the population could peak by as early as 2020.[49] In South Korea, where the fertility rate often ranks among the lowest in the OECD (1.21 in 2014), the population is expected to peak in 2030.[50] The smaller states of Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are also struggling to boost fertility rates from record lows and to manage aging populations. More than a third of the world's elderly (65 and older) live in East Asia and the Pacific, and many of the economic concerns raised first in Japan can be projected to the rest of the region.[51][52]

Population Pyramid

India's population is aging exactly like Japan, but with a 50-year lag. A study of the populations of India and Japan for the years 1950 to 2015 combined with median variant population estimates for the years 2016 to 2100 shows that India's is 50 years behind Japan on the aging process.[53]

See also[edit]




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