Sunday, April 29, 2012

 

Japan population deflation should be a warning to the West


by Larry Geller

A New York Times op-ed, Incredible Shrinking Country (NY Times, 4/28/2012) presents a thoroughly negative view of the rapid deflation of Japan’s population now underway.

The Japanese birthrate hovers around just 1.3 children per woman, far below the level required to maintain a stable population. Thanks to increasing life expectancy, by 2040 “there could almost be one centenarian on hand to welcome each Japanese newborn.” Over the same period, the overall Japanese population is likely to decline by 20 percent, with grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net.

Yes, Japan has a problem.

On the other hand, check out the first comment on the article, which takes a different tack.

I would as well. Japan was overcrowded when we lived there. Platform attendants on train stations pushed with all their might to stuff passengers into the trains. Walking from my office to the train station was to participate in a slowly moving and tightly packed mob, progressing like an inch-worm up the Ginza and into the Yurakucho train station. A little natural attrition, sort of a relatively painless thinning of the herd, would not be a bad idea.

The article is correct that Japan has not changed its ways, but it doesn’t allow for the possibility that Japanese society is very resilient. In time, certainly within a generation, they can adapt to the new demographics.

Japan has other, more immediate problems, some of which may be alleviated in part by a reduced population. For example, the number of women between 23 and 63 living in poverty is greater than 30%.  Among single mothers, the poverty rate is around 50%. Even women university graduates can’t find good jobs. Another way of looking at it is that there are not now enough jobs for the large population. In a fully consumer-driven economy, that is, one that depends, as does the US, on its own population to consume to support growth, a population decrease would also reduce consumption. Japan is not like the US in that regard. It still has manufacturing and research and development. If the population of men decreases due to the low birthrate, then they will be forced to integrate women on a more equal basis. At least, that’s my tentative theory.

Japan is in trouble right now, today. The NY Times article seems wedded to the importance of economic growth, but growth is not necessary or, in some situations, desirable. [On an island, such as Oahu, which was self-sustaining with a comparable population before the Western takeover, unlimited growth is a prescription for suicide.]

I do not know how Japan will cope with its current economic problems, which may be the root cause of the population decline, but note that it was resilient enough to recover from the devastation of the war. The firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities killed more than the 220,000 who perished as a result of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An area twice as large as Manhattan was burned out in a single raid that killed 100,000 civilians within six hours.

And yet Japan recovered. It can recover again.

But will we? Our population is not declining, but “jobs” is just a word spouted by candidates for public office. As a country, we no longer manufacture. We can’t all make a living giving each other haircuts or selling each other foreign-made smartphones. The income gap can only continue to widen. Nor are we alone. Europe is just discovering that the austerity measures they are imposing not only on Greece but on themselves will hurt, not help the economy.

How long will it be before Western populations begin to plummet? Japan may merely be ahead of its time.



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