Saitama City, Japan - Japan is shrinking. Government figures released in December 2005 indicate that the population of Japan decreased: A report compiled by the Health and Welfare Ministry estimates 1.067 million births in 2005, as compared to 1.077 million deaths. Excluding the war-ravaged year of 1945, this is the nation's first recorded net population loss since records began to be kept in 1899.
Experts predicted in 2002 that the nation's population would peak in 2007. Now, according to The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the decline has arrived earlier than expected.
One factor in the accelerated decline is the high number of deaths among elderly who succumbed to an influenza epidemic in early 2005. But all agree that the most significant factor has been the rapid fall of the birthrate. The average number of babies born to a Japanese woman during her reproductive years dropped to a record low of 1.289 in 2004, continuing a downward trend that started in the early 1980s.
Government and business leaders responded to the figures with gloomy remarks about the dire social and economic consequences of a declining population, which stands at 128 million. "The declining birthrate is becoming more conspicuous," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters. "I feel we need to take measures to stop this trend."
Opposition leaders were quick to point fingers at Mr. Koizumi, blaming the prime minister's economic reforms. "With the fall in income of the child-rearing generations, it became impossible to stop the declining birthrate," Democratic Party of Japan leader Seiji Maehara said.
The fact is, since 1989 the government has implemented a series of plans to combat population decline, but to no avail. Most measures have aimed at making it easier for working women to bear and rear children, with billions of dollars spent on improving nursery schools and child-care facilities.
Parents also receive subsidies of 300,000 yen ($2,500) per pregnancy to defray the costs of childbirth. Afterward, a monthly allowance ($44-$90 per child) is provided until children reach school age, and most medical expenses not covered by insurance are reimbursed during this period as well. Yet in spite of these incentives, couples persist in shunning the burdens of parenthood.
Indeed, marriage continues to be delayed. The average age for first marriages reached new highs in 2004, rising to 29.6 for men and 27.8 for women. Young women especially are in no hurry to take wedding vows, and choose older, more financially stable partners when they do decide to tie the knot.
Some women are more interested in the pursuit of a career than marriage, but most are simply reluctant to trade a comfortable lifestyle for the hardships of family life. These so-called "parasite singles" often continue to live at home well past age 30. While mom takes care of the laundry and housekeeping, they enjoy the benefit of free room and board and maintain a high disposable income to spend on leisure travel and designer goods.
Many observers are alarmed at the rapid rise in the number of "freeters" (job-hopping part-time workers) and "neets" (those not in education, employment or training). Unable or unwilling to join the corporate world of Japan, Inc., these young people have opted for a less structured and demanding lifestyle, at the cost of remaining dependent upon their parents and their parents' generation's postwar prosperity.
Masahiro Yamada of Tokyo Gakugei University, author of the book A Society Lacking in Hope, attributed the falling birthrate to a general lack of hope about the future. Polls show a gloomy outlook afflicting all age groups in Japan, despite growing prosperity.
It is deeply ironic that the society with the longest life expectancy in the history of the world lacks the courage and desire to give life to the next generation. Awash in material goods, Japan is sorely lacking in basic spiritual necessities: hope for the future, appreciation for the gift of life, and an understanding of its meaning and purpose.