May 6, 2008

Land of the Few Children



The Washington Post today has yet another article about how the population of Japan is declining. They cover this ongoing story well. A few years ago, they had another article about how schools in rural Japan were closing because there weren't enough kids to fill them.

The numbers are frightening:
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.

The Japanese population is actually shrinking. Without a new crop of young people, not only will there not be enough hands to get the work done on a large scale, but there will also be less innovation. There will also be fewer new ideas moving around. The country will also be held back by the need for workers to care for the elderly.

It's also sad for the elderly:
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.

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I get old, the last thing I'd want is to have a robot taking care of me.

There's also a huge toll on the kids who are going to grow up without many classmates. As a parent, I can't overstate the benefits that children get from socializing with friends. Kids learn cooperation and creativity by playing with others. From the earlier Post article:
With no other children their age, the two girls and boy in the second grade have learned to make do. Tatsuya Wakamatsu, 8, a quiet boy in a black sweatshirt, says he persuades the girls to play baseball with him at recess and after school. In return, he grudgingly agrees to jump rope with them. "There aren't so many kids for us to play with in the neighborhood and sometimes the older kids tease us, so the three of us always play together," he said.

The earlier article also alluded to several reasons why Japan is depopulating, including women no longer wanting "traditional" lives, lack of immigration, and people moving to the big cities where people usually have fewer children. I can't comment on the "traditional" reference--the Washington Post has published some pretty outlandish orientalist portrayals of "traditional" Japan in the past--and I think the "immigration" question is complex for a country like Japan which has a unique cultural approach to foreigners, but I wonder if Japan is doing anything about the economic reasons behind the decline. As a parent who knows many other parents, I can state from experience that many families limit the number of children they have for economic reasons. The U.S. has no universal healthcare, big companies usually are not child friendly, and experts estimate that by the time my son hits 18, private universities will cost around $300k a year. These are factors that even the upper middle class will have trouble dealing with.

It's a sad state of affairs for children these days. The Japanese government needs to take some decisive action in stopping this rapid decline before it's too late.

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