By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
TOKYO, May 5 -- Japan celebrated a national holiday on Monday in honor of its children. But Children's Day might just as easily have been a national day of mourning.
For this is the land of disappearing children and a slow-motion demographic catastrophe that is without precedent in the developed world.
The number of children has declined for 27 consecutive years, a government report said over the weekend. Japan now has fewer children who are 14 or younger than at any time since 1908.
The proportion of children in the population fell to an all-time low of 13.5 percent. That number has been falling for 34 straight years and is the lowest among 31 major countries, according to the report. In the United States, children account for about 20 percent of the population.
Japan also has a surfeit of the elderly. About 22 percent of the population is 65 or older, the highest proportion in the world. And that number is on the rise. By 2020, the elderly will outnumber children by nearly 3 to 1, the government report predicted. By 2040, they will outnumber them by nearly 4 to 1.
The economic and social consequences of these trends are difficult to overstate.
Japan, now the world's second-largest economy, will lose 70 percent of its workforce by 2050 and economic growth will slow to zero, according to a report this year by the nonprofit Japan Center for Economic Research.
Population shrinkage began three years ago and is gathering pace. Within 50 years, the population, now 127 million, will fall by a third, the government projects. Within a century, two-thirds of the population will be gone.
In what is now being called a "super-aging" society, department and grocery stores have recorded declining sales for a decade -- and new car sales have fallen for 18 consecutive years.
Rural Japan, thus far, has borne the brunt of the slide. In depopulated small towns, stores are closing, governments are desperate for tax revenue and there are chronic shortages of doctors and nurses. The government is subsidizing the development of robots as caregivers for the old.
To a steadily increasing degree, Japan's future depends on metro Tokyo, the world's largest megalopolis. It is home to about 35 million people, or 27 percent of the country's population.
But in Tokyo, children account for just 11.8 percent of the population, according to the new government report. That's the lowest proportion in all of Japan.