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


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?”

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood