Rural Aging in Japan and Population Implosion

The developed world (define that term how you will) is aging. We are living longer. We are having children later, and having fewer of them when we do. In the past three decades, we’ve seen countries arrive at the pivotal zero-percent population growth rate. The trend began in the eighties in Eastern Europe and spread outwardly from there as Western countries reached their demographic break-even point. Today, population growth rates in many countries are negligible, and some have even declined. For other countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, the natural rate of growth is below the crucial 2.1 children-per-family benchmark, but immigration from other countries keeps the overall national population growing. This is good news – for cities. Major cities are generally the destination for new residents, whether they come from outside the country or for smaller places within it. Since the advent of industrialisation, the urban/rural population ratio has greatly swung toward the urban sector, to the point where most ‘Western’ countries have 90% of their population or more living in cities. A common refrain in rural areas around the world is the need to keep young people around to keep rural areas vital. In my hometown, for instance, the population is roughly the same as it was twenty years ago, but the school-age population is half of what it was. Where there were eight schools in our district when I was in high school, there are now five, and that will almost certainly be four within the next five years. The average age of residents in rural areas around the developed world has skyrocketed in my lifetime, and with the large influx of baby-boomers now at retirement age, it won’t be long before one-third of all people in the developed world will be considered elderly. One country in particular is at the beginning stage of a demographic near-apocalypse.

According to the Statistics Bureau of Japan, maximum population levels in the country were reached in 2004 (127 787 000). Since then, the rate of population growth has stagnated. In 2009, the largest population decrease in the country’s recorded history was posted (-0.14%), and projections foresee nothing less a complete demographic crash in the next forty years:


Courtesy of Statistical Handbook of Japan 2010, Statistics Bureau, MIC, Japan (

Japan is already renowned for having the longest life expectancy on the planet. As life expectancy continues to increase (and assuming that the current birth rate trends continue), the results in 2050 will be astounding: 40 percent of Japan’s population is projected to be over the age of 65:


Courtesy of Statistical Handbook of Japan 2010, Statistics Bureau, MIC, Japan (

Any armchair demographer knows that an inverted population pyramid such as that is not good for population growth (the most interesting part of the projected 2050 pyramid may be that 3 million of the 95 million projected residents will be over the age of ninety). In the past handful of years, the birth rate in Japan has actually been surpassed by the death rate.


Courtesy of Statistical Handbook of Japan 2010, Statistics Bureau, MIC, Japan (

While the entire country will feel the impacts of this demographic shift, nowhere will it be felt more than rural Japan, where populations are expected to halve in many towns as primary industry continues the always-advancing process of labour consolidation, depriving what little youth are left of high-paying jobs and sending them to look for work in the big cities, exacerbating the aging problem. The median age of residents in rural Japan went from 42 in 1960 to 60 in 1990. With fewer working-age people to subsidise pensions for the growing elderly population, government budgets become strained, and major spending cutbacks ensue (Japan is projected to lose 70 percent of its current workforce by 2050).

Population maintenance has become an overriding priority for many rural jurisdictions. Take the city of Yubari on Hokkaido, for example, a small city whose main employer, a mine, shut down in 1990. Once as large as 120 000 residents in the 1960s, today the population is less than one-tenth of that. The municipal government tried to rejuvenate the city by taking out massive loans in an effort to build a large number of tourist attractions. This ignored the fact that there were no people to visit these attractions (the recession of the 1990s certainly didn’t help, either). The amusement parks and museums closed in short periods of time, and municipal insolvency came in 2006 (you can find a rather chilling essay on Yubari, replete with photos, at Spike Japan). Places that trying to put all of their eggs in one basket (such as tourism) in order to keep the local economy healthy soon find out that it’s not so easy to simply jump out of one car and into another. Cities unable to sustain the pressure of doling out their own budgets are finding themselves merged into other cities. The northern city of Aomori’s solution to reining in the cost of infrastructure is to shrink the city by moving major institutions back toward the middle of town in an effort to lure residents and development back toward the central core of the city (not completely unlike Detroit mayor Dave Bing’s plan to shrink his city and make it more manageable).

The adverse impacts of financial troubles and isolation caused by less funding for Japan’s elderly (and fewer children to take care of them) are already manifesting themselves in increased rates of alcoholism and indigence. Over half of all persons over the age of 65 are on welfare. There’s even been a rise in the numbers of elderly people arrested for committing petty crimes such as shoplifting simply because they don’t have enough to eat (not to mention the tales of senior citizens purposefully committing crime just so they be taken care of in jail). 60% of the country’s prison population is over the age of sixty. Japan also has very little tradition of constructing retirement homes (although this is changing in recent years), as children and grandchildren are traditionally expected to care for seniors at home. Another interesting trend is the increase in ‘adoption’ of adult males among the elderly to carry on the familial line of succession in response to the increasing amount of son-less families. There are also increasing amounts of daughter-less families, of course; it is not uncommon to find rural communities in which half of all men in their thirties are unmarried. In recent years, many men have been importing foreign brides to combat this, creating a new industry in marriage brokerage (often government-aided), and introducing the controversial notion of large-scale immigration to help stem population decline. Japan is not exactly known for welcoming in immigrants with open arms.

How Japan will be able to maintain its current level of infrastructure and social programs with a declining tax base, declining working-age population, ever-increasing elderly population, and declining consumptions, all while dealing with a massive national debt, will be one of the major stories of the first half of this century. The world should most certainly be paying attention to this.

Further Reading

Economist, The (2007). Japan’s changing demography: Cloud or silver lining? The Economist, 26 July 2007. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Faiola, A. (2005). A Baby Bust Empties Out Japan’s Schools: Shrinking Population Called Greatest National Problem. Washington Post, 3 March 2005. Accessed 1 January 2011.

Greimel, H. (2007). Low Subsidies, Aging Plague Rural Japan. Washington Post, 4 March 2007. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Harlan, C. (2010). Strict immigration rules may threaten Japan’s future. Washington Post, 28 July 2010. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Hays, J. (n.d.). Pensions, Neglect and Problems for Elderly Japan. Facts and Details. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Hendy, R. (2008). Yubari: From the culture of coal to the cult of caramel. Spike Japan. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Hendy, R. (2009). Kushiro: Everyone knows this is nowhere. Spike Japan. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Knight, J. and J.W. Traphagan (2003). The Study of the Family in Japan: Integrating Anthropological and Demographic Approaches. In Demographic Change and the Family in Japan’s Aging Society, 3-23. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Kyodo News (2007). 19 prefectures to see 20% population drops by ’35. Japan Times, 30 May 2007. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Murakami, K. et al. (2008). Planning for the Ageing Countryside in Britain and Japan: City-Regions and the Mobility of Older People. Research Report to the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation , February 2008. Newcastle: Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University. Accessed 1 January 2011.

Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (2010). Chapter 2: Population. In Statistical Handbook of Japan. Available at Accessed 1 January 2011.

Veltema, S. (2010). Rural Japan: the population implosion and the inevitable decline. 22 February 2010. Available at–and-the-inevitable-decline. Accessed 1 January 2011.

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