The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There have never been so few children in Japan (at least, not since they started counting)

An employee of an official Japanese nursery school taking care of a baby in Yokohama. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)
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Self-driving cars. Food delivery robots on wheels. Automated checkout lines at the grocery store.

As technology's capacity to replace human labor continues to grow, many workers in the West fear losing their jobs to robots. But in Japan, people might not be so upset if robots replaced them on factory assembly lines, a top official said Friday.

“The Western way of thinking is 'robots will steal my job,' " Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso said at a conference in Manila. “But in Japan, robots will reduce the ordinary man's load.”

That's probably because Japan finds itself in a somewhat unique predicament: It's the world's third-largest economy, but its population is shrinking — and quickly. On Friday — the day before Japan's annual Children's Day celebration — the government released a stark statistic: Since the government started counting in 1950, there have never been so few children in Japan.

That data point shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. This is the 37th year in a row that the population of children in Japan has continued to drop. In 2017, about 941,000 Japanese children were born — the lowest number since the country started recording its births, in 1899. And the year before marked another milestone: the first time in history that there were fewer than 1 million births recorded in the country.

In countries with more than 40 million people, Japan is ranked the lowest out of 32 for its ratio of children to the overall population. This year, there are 15.53 million children living in Japan, down 170,000 from last year. Some 60 years ago, the country was home to nearly twice as many children as it is today. (The Japanese government classifies anyone 14 and younger as a child.)

Economists point to number of reasons for Japan's shrinking youth population: more women in the workforce, the rising cost of caring for children and an increasing number of single adults are a few. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, fearing the economic consequences of an aging population, has called the low birthrate a priority for his government, and has taken measures to try to solve what could be a ticking time bomb for Japan's economy.

In an effort to turn the numbers around, the Japanese government even took romance into its own hands and began offering matchmaking services to try to get young Japanese singletons to link up. Local authorities are encouraged to organize government-sanctioned speed dating events, where single people gather and have brief conversations with a number of potential partners. Volunteers from a marriage promotion committee are even on hand to help ease any awkwardness.

But birthrates in Japan have been low for decades, and recent plummets mean they are likely to continue to drop for a long time. And as older people reach a point when they would like to stop working, there might not be anyone to replace them.

“I'm 77 years old and still working,” Aso, the government official, said Friday.