Take a look at this graph:
If you’re not shocked, try looking at it again.
It shows that Japan’s population has already begun to decline from its peak of 128 million people in 2010, and that this decline will continue over the coming decades at a rate of approximately 1 million per year. By mid-century there will be fewer than 100 million people, and by 2080 the population of the country will have dropped by 50%.
Of course, such predictions are subject to assumptions about future birth rates, death rates and net immigration, all of which are uncertain. However, with stubbornly low fertility rates (1.4 children per woman), one quarter of the population now aged over 65, and restrictive immigration policies, they represent a realistic view.
So what happens to a society when population numbers decline steeply through natural attrition (i.e. not through war or natural disaster) over a long period? As it happens, Ireland underwent a similar trend over a 120-year period from the mid-19th century, losing half its population to emigration. But I don’t think the two situations are comparable.
First of all, while the rural population of Ireland fell dramatically, Ireland’s cities grew during the period, and the country grew in prosperity (albeit slowly). Japan’s population is already overwhelmingly urban (80%), so there is little scope for cities to maintain their population through internal migration. In fact, the big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are already experiencing population reductions (although their suburbs and neighbouring cities are holding steady or still growing).
Some questions on my mind are:
- What happens to the existing infrastructure (for example, the amazing bridges of Osaka Harbour, the long road tunnels that snake through the mountains between the major cities, the tall buildings and high-speed rail lines)? Will a smaller population be able to afford the upkeep of the infrastructure they inherit?
The answer depends on whether future productivity increases allow a smaller working population to maintain or grow GDP. This in turn depends on future technological trends, which are unknowable.
- What happens to the land?
In our area, we see many small plots of land being farmed by elderly people. Their children have grown up, maybe have a college education and an office job, and there is nobody to take over the farm when the farmer becomes too old or too ill to continue.
Up to now, such land has been developed for housing (such as the street we live on now, which was probably a rice-field 15 years ago). Even in the year since we arrived, we have seen some fields in our neighbourhood being built on. But with a shrinking population, demand for housing will reduce, and the trend for converting agricultural land to housing will presumably come to a stop.
Our nearby park, on the other hand, is growing. I wrote last week about Ooizumi Ryokuchi park, a very large park near our house. One part of it, which we visit regularly, has been newly incorporated into the park, and there are grandiose plans for further expansion, taking over large areas now used for agriculture and light industry.
The existing extent of the park is shown in red (including a little exclave to the north-east, in Matsubara city). The area outlined in yellow has been acquired by the park but has not yet been landscaped and opened to the public. And the blue represents the ultimate intention to expand to the east as land becomes available in Nakamura village, joining the two parts of the park into a single contiguous area some 30% larger than at present.
This, to me, is amazing. I am so used to the idea of land at the fringes of cities being gradually but inexorably incorporated into the urban sprawl, green belts coming under relentless pressure for development, that it would never have occurred to me that it would instead become parkland. But with a shrinking population, there is a different dynamic at play. Perhaps this is an example of what the future holds for Japan and for other developed countries.