Saturday, March 4, 2017

Thoughts on Japan's Demographic Crisis

As of last year the population of Japan is officially shrinking.

For many years now Japan has had a birthrate well below replacement level (~2.1 babies per female). Combined with low immigration this has led to an aging society. Japan’s median age is 47, the second highest in the world. Before long the average Japanese person will be over 50.

Why is this a problem? Well, some argue that it isn’t. Some would say that since Japan is a relatively small country, its population density has hit a limit, and it makes sense for birthrates to decline. Many people believe Japan (or even the whole world) is simply overpopulated.

I do not buy this. Japan ranks 40th in population density behind India. India’s birthrate is well above replacement level. If a nation with a higher population density than Japan can sustain above replacement level fertility, it follows that Japan’s problem is likely not population density but rather culture.

To be fair, Japan is quite mountainous, so the amount of usable land might make India a poor comparison. However I think the basic point stands when we think more generally about population density. Consider for example that you could quadruple Japan’s population and the density would be about half as much as Queens, NY. I used to live there and I can tell you it isn’t that bad; plenty of nice parks, suburbs, and open space. With its level of technology Japan could likely sustain a population at least an order of magnitude larger in size. I do not agree that the country is simply overpopulated.

I also do not agree that the planet generally is overpopulated, and even if I did I would not argue that the best solution is having fewer Japanese people. Japanese are some of the most productive, peaceful, high IQ humans on Earth. We need more of them not fewer. If we really wanted to curb population growth we should be focusing on the developing world. Certainly we need to prioritize taking care of the environment, switching to clean energy, and combating global warming. But I disagree that the most effective or moral solution is encouraging low fertility in wealthier countries. (or any countries)

Japan’s birthrate is a serious problem too. The lower number of young workers has created a public pension liability that simply cannot be honored. Benefits are going to have to be slashed dramatically and people will be forced to retire much later. The economic consequences of an aging society have been clear since Japan’s crash in the late 1980’s. They have had sluggish growth for decades.

I would go further and argue that low fertility signifies cultural malaise and degeneracy. It suggests that people have become unable to plan and shape a future for themselves. It suggests that family has become devalued. To me this is dangerous because families are the cornerstone of a free and civil society. A society made up solely of individuals is easily manipulated by demogogues and charlatans. Family gives a person something to which they are more loyal than the state. Having a family forces you to think across generations and consider the long-term consequences of decisions. A good argument could be made for restricting voting to people with families.

So what is the solution to Japan’s birthrate? I think the answer depends on what we identify as the cause of the problem. By far the most common scapegoat when I ask Japanese people is the economy. With lifetime guaranteed employment a thing of the past, people feel like getting married and having kids is just too expensive. The government has tried to help by offering subsidies to families with children, but this has not helped much.

I am very skeptical of the economic explanation for many reasons. It seems to me that if poor women throughout the third world can raise five kids without trouble, wealthy Japanese people should be able have a few of their own. Furthermore, the sharp decline in the birthrate actually began in the 1970’s, right in the heart of Japan’s massive growth and economic miracle. So even when the economy was booming people were electing to have fewer kids.

I suspect Japan was a victim of its success in some ways. People thought the boom would last forever so many deferred starting families and got accustomed to an unrealistic standard of living. The culture changed in a way that made people simply value marriage and children less. More women working and going to college was likely another big factor.

I do not think the problem is mainly due to women or feminism though. It's true, Japanese women can be picky. The current popular drama "Tokyo Tarareba Musume" explores this a bit as it is a story about women in their 30's struggling to get married. Still, the vast majority of Japanese women want to get married, and a high percentage want to be housewives too. I think both men and women are to blame for the current state of affairs. My observation is that the world of men and women is just so different in Japan. There are lots of men who simply do not care about dating and women. They are known as “Soshokukei,” which technically means ‘herbivore’ but really just refers to their lack of assertiveness with women. It isn’t misogyny or any sort of political statement for these guys either; they literally just have no idea how to even talk to a girl. Therefore I think the best way to encourage more marriage is to find a way to hack social interactions to enable more coupling. Some outside of the box thinking is needed.

In the short term Japan might have to boost immigration at least a little bit to help meet demand for workers. They have done this in the past by focusing on skilled Asian immigrants for specific industries, such as female Filipino nurses to help care for the aging population. More of this sort of thing is not a bad idea. Filipino, Vietnamese, and other east Asian immigrants from poorer countries are generally eager to assimilate and are very hard workers. The females are often sought for marriage and eventually take Japanese names. Thus it is the least culturally disruptive form of immigration to encourage. Along with targeted immigration boosts, the government is definitely going to have to cut spending and reign in entitlements.

In the long term, if the birthrate doesn’t improve, hopefully automation will be the ultimate fix. With whole industries run by robots, Japan simply won’t need as many workers. Men can work less and more women can stay home with their kids (‘mom’ is one of the few jobs we should not replace with a robot). It’s not a terrible vision of the future.