Despite its hand-wringing about Japan's alleged "birth dearth," an Oct. 29 front-page story provides a textbook example of how Malthusian limits on population growth make themselves felt in an industrial society. In developed nations, the first limiting resource encountered is not food (as Malthus thought) but some modern necessity such as affordable living space or education.

Japan shows all the classic biological symptoms of acute overpopulation, including decreasing tolerance for individuals perceived as nonproductive, such as the aged. The only way out of Japan's dilemma is to keep the birthrate down and accept whatever temporary social dislocations this causes as the unavoidable price of past overfertility. The ever-practical Japanese people, of course, understand this instinctively and are showing more sense than their government or the short-sighted pro-natalist economists, who are prescribing exactly the wrong medicine.

The correct conclusion to draw is not that the Japanese should try to reattain the disastrous rates of population growth that got them into the present mess; rather the lesson is that a smaller, steady-state population is far preferable to either a rapidly growing or rapidly shrinking one. DARYL P. DOMNING Associate Professor, Department of Anatomy Howard University Washington

Jessica Mathews's overpopulation scenario {"World Population: As the President Turns," op-ed, Nov. 1} contrasts sharply with T. R. Reid's front-page story of Oct. 29, "Birth Dearth Bears Worries for Japan."

Where Dr. Mathews gives the standard doomsday rhetoric of many "environmentalist" Malthusians regarding overpopulation, Mr. Reid presents an opposite apprehension -- the problem of not enough people.

The modern industrialized world -- Japan included -- has achieved a level of prosperity that tempts it to conclude that it has finally reached a point at which it can begin to relax and enjoy the rewards of its struggles.

Well and good. But when that prosperity means, as Mr. Reid reports, a "potentially disastrous" decline in childbearing, serious questions should be asked about the kind of future we are going to leave to whomever is here to have it.

In the short run, childless "families" may mean two incomes and the prospect of career fulfillment for that spouse whose sex has traditionally been ascribed the disproportionate share of hands-on child-rearing responsibility.

But a child-free generation also means empty playgrounds, closed schools and no longer hearing the voices of children playing in the streets. In the long run, companies seeking to hire bright, young graduates to replenish their ranks would turn in vain to universities long since depleted of students.

The prospect of a dwindling labor supply and an economy sinking into a long inexorable decline is brightened by the knowledge of countries today with still healthy birthrates. It is to them that tomorrow's universities will have to turn.

Having (as a parent) contributed to the "population explosion" -- as it is called by those crusaders who in the name of science have invoked the specter of a suffocating, standing-room-only planet as a punishment for the world's sinful procreating -- I am wearied of this latest barrage by Dr. Mathews. Her castigation hits larger-than-average families, but it singles out President Bush because he sidestepped the latest environmentalist bandwagon. He has not kowtowed to Dr. Mathews's own agenda, so he is anathema and a puppet of "the right wing." Give me a break.