The Plus One policy

Japan's rapidly falling population has sparked an anguished debate: should the country open itself u

By mid-century, the UN predicts, the population of Japan will have dropped from nearly 130 million to 100 million. This is the largest decline for any developed nation. Japan is not an aberration, but a trailblazer. How it is coping with a shrinking population is being scrutinised by other countries across Asia and Europe that have embarked on the same journey.

In Japan, depopulation has triggered a debate about national priorities. If the country is to continue with business as usual and pursue industrial growth, then the trend needs to be reversed. Yet many have grown weary of the treadmill of economic competitiveness and are using this new demographic shift as an opportunity to discuss a different vision of Japan’s future.

Most politicians are of the opinion that population decline is economically dysfunctional and needs to be corrected, even if they are not sure how. The deputy chief cabinet secretary, Haku­bun Shimomura, has pointed an accusing finger at Japanese women: if only they would “stay at home and raise their children”.

What alarms Shimomura is that Japanese women have, on average, only 1.3 children each. Today Japan’s fertility average is lower than China’s (with an average of 1.6 children), although not quite as low as Taiwan’s (1.1 children). The corresponding figure for the UK is 1.9; while at the other end of the spectrum, women in Afghanistan, Angola and Liberia have an average of 6.8 children. Since the Japanese have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, the country is facing a withering at one end of the life cycle, but a boom at the other. By 2050, there will be more than three times as many people aged 65 or over as there will be those under 14. It is also predicted that there will be 500,000 ­people aged 100 or over.

The obvious solution is immigration. One can read in the Japan Times of the need to “throw the country open to the millions of poor Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who would certainly come if invited”. However, Japan has no history of being a country of immigration; only about 1.5 per cent of workers are foreign. Even in Tokyo, the figure rises to just

3 per cent. The Japanese myth of racial homogeneity is deep-rooted, insular and very protective. The Japanese look at societies, such as the United States and Britain, where immigrants have settled in large numbers, and see fractured ­societies in which an ill-treated caste of foreign labour fill low-paid jobs. For many, it is not an appealing vision of their own future.

According to the UN, if Japan wants to prevent a fall in its working-age population, it will need to take in as many as 650,000 immigrants every year until 2050. This would mean that by mid-century about a third of the population would be of non-Japanese heritage. Is Japan ready for this?

Another option is to encourage women to have more babies. Small bribes are on offer. Child benefit paid to families is modestly pro-natalist. Local encouragement is also available. In the town of Yamatsuri, parents receive $4,600 (£3,264) for the birth of a child, with an additional $460 a year for ten years. It doesn’t sound much – and it ­isn’t. In fact, from whatever source, state cash for parents remains pal­­try. It is more a symbolic sign of goodwill than a serious form of practical

help. The Japanese may worry

about population decline, but

their efforts to reverse the

trend look gestural and

perfunctory.

Predictably, the government has announced a raft of initiatives to get people breeding. The “Angel Plan” and the “New Angel Plan” were both designed to make having children an easier and more attractive option. The latest idea, the “Plus One Proposal”, is directed towards encouraging families to grow by “plus one”. The scheme aims to create parent-friendly working conditions, with funds to be allocated for the construction of 50,000 new day-care facilities.

Yet these initiatives still leave Japan far behind most countries in western Europe in the provision of “pro-parent” state welfare and employment law. And since European countries are also facing population decline, it seems unlikely that the Japanese government’s belated efforts will turn the tide.

There are other options. Two of the more popular are additional automation in the labour market and wider economic participation among old people. Japan leads the world in both. If Japan wants to reverse its declining population, policy levers are at hand. But it seems what the country is going through today cannot be understood simply as a dilemma about which policies to apply. The issue of population decline has brought to the surface long-suppressed questions about the point and purpose of ceaseless growth.

Increasingly the message from Japan is not about how to buck the population trend, but how to adapt to it. One of the country’s national newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, argues that “from the standpoint of quality of life, this is actually a good opportunity to reassess our growth-­oriented post-Second World War values and ask ourselves how we really want to live”.

Urban planners anticipate the end of suburban sprawl, and the emergence of more compact and greener towns and cities. For the demographer Toru Suzuki, of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan’s contraction throws up issues that have for too long been avoided in the rush to compete and consume. “It brings you to a very tough question,” he says. “What is happiness? Can we be happy without economic growth?”