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Ageing Society in Japan: Sociological & Philosophical View Research Paper

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Updated: May 23rd, 2021

Introduction

The world’s population is estimated to be growing at an average of 1.3% annually (Ogawa 2005). However, this growth has not been witnessed in all parts of the globe because fertility rates in developed countries have significantly declined in the past four decades (Ogawa 2005). However, the same phenomenon has not been observed in Asia and other parts of the developing world because of transformational social, economic, and political changes (Otsu and Shibayama 2016).

Notably, a population decline in Asia is rarely reported. However, Japan, which is a leading economy in Asia is almost at par with Europe and other parts of the developed world in reporting declining fertility rates (Kudo, Mutisya and Nagao 2015). For example, in 2005, Ogawa (2005) reported that Japan’s population growth was negative. Experts project that in 2050, the country’s population could decline from a high of 128 million in 2005 to a low of 95 million in 2050 (Ogawa 2005).

One of the effects of Japan’s dwindling population is an increase in the number of aging people. Using a population-economic-social security model, Ogawa (2005) says that Japan has surpassed Italy in having the highest population of aging people because citizens who are older than 65 years comprise 20% of the population. In 2025, this percentage is expected to rise to 31%, meaning that Japan will be home to the world’s largest population of elderly people (Ogawa 2005). The rate at which Japan’s population is aging is also considered among the highest in industrialized nations (Kudo, Mutisya and Nagao 2015).

For example, it has only taken Japan 21 years to increase the percentage of the elderly (people above the age of 65 years) from 10% to 20% (Ogawa 2005). Compared with “welfare nations,” such as Sweden and Norway, it is estimated that Japan’s aging population is rising three times as fast (Ogawa 2005). Reports also show that the percentage of elderly people above the age of 75 years is expected to rise from 40% in the year 2000 to 59% in 2025 (Ogawa 2005).

Japan’s population decline is a significant issue that has picked the interest of researchers and experts alike because it is among the first Asian countries to witness a significant decline in its population. Similarly, it is among the first Asian countries to report significant declines in population numbers both within rural and urban areas (Otsu and Shibayama 2016). This paper suggests that the Marxism philosophy explains the decline in fertility rates in Japan because it suggests that significant increases in wealth often lead to a reduction of fertility rates.

To support the strength of this philosophy in explaining this phenomenon, the evidence is not only drawn from Japan, but also from other industrialized nations, which have similarly experienced population declines over years because of increased economic growth and wealth. The research questions guiding this investigation appear below.

Research Questions

  1. Why is Japan’s population on the decline?
  2. How will the future of Japan look like with a continued decline in fertility rates?
  3. What philosophical premise explains Japan’s decrease in population?

Methodology

The views that will be presented in this paper were developed from a desk research, which involved the sourcing of credible research sources from three databases – Google Scholar, Jstor, and Science Direct. The keywords and phrases used to conduct the investigation were: “aging population,” “Japan,” and “population decline.” Dozens of articles were generated in the research process, but only seven were included in this study. The exclusion criterion was mostly defined by the limited timeframe of the research because the investigation was only confined to Japan’s population decline between the years 2000 until now. Therefore, studies that did not fall within this category were excluded from the study.

Significance of Topic

It is important to understand the factors influencing the decline in Japan’s population because it could inform policy development in the country. Particularly, this analysis would be instrumental in better informing policy decisions guiding the development of social and welfare programs in Japan because the state has taken a proactive role in catering to the welfare of its citizens. Therefore, it would be easier for policy experts to understand implementation gaps and factors that have prevented past programs from having a strong efficacy in increasing fertility rates.

The findings of this study will also be instrumental to experts who strive to understand population growth dynamics in emerging Asian economic powerhouses because Japan has achieved high levels of development (similar to most developed countries) but it is not completely alienated from its Asian traditions and cultures. Therefore, the findings of this study could be useful to people who want to understand the interplay between cultural and economic factors in influencing population growth.

At the same time, through the same analysis, they would better understand the effects of an aging society on countries, like Japan, which share a mixture of traditional and western cultures. Notably, this analysis would be useful in understanding population dynamics among many Asian countries, which are also experiencing rapid economic growth and an increased infiltration of western cultures.

Causes of Increasing Ageing Population

Researchers have identified different causes for the decline in population growth numbers in Japan. According to the demographic transition theory, the decline in population growth numbers is largely attributed to a shift of values from familyism to individualism (Usman and Tomimoto 2013). Usman and Tomimoto (2013) say that underlying this population is a “rise in cohabitation, extramarital births, divorce, female labor force participation and living alone” (1-2).

Usman and Tomimoto (2013) also say that a high rate of suicide among young Japanese men between the ages of 15 and 39 years is partly responsible for the high percentage of elderly people in Japan. This phenomenon is partly tied to the decline in the number of young people available to work because a high rate of suicide could cause a reduction in the number of working-age young people in the country. Similarly, it means a decline in the number of young people who should be having children.

The high suicide rate in Japan is partly attributed to a culture of “dying honorably,” as opposed to “accepting defeat.” Usman and Tomimoto (2013) partly attribute this phenomenon to the “Samurai Culture,” which has traditionally promoted the idea that committing suicide and “dying honorably” was better than accepting defeat or failing.

Within the larger context of issues that affect Japan’s social and economic dynamics, Marxism provides the strongest anchor for all the underlying causes of the country’s population decline. According to Holt (2014), Marxism refers to a general group of theories, developed by the philosopher, Karl Marx, which tried to explain social and economic conflicts and developments among different classes of people in a capitalist society. The theory postulates that social and economic development of societies could be easily explained using the materialist interpretation of class conflicts (Holt 2014).

From an understanding of multiple relations of production, Marxism also explains population growth changes among different cohorts of the society (Holt 2014). Underlying this development is a general understanding that the higher a nation’s wealth, the lower its birth rates (Holt 2014). This statement is supported by Marxist principles, which suggest that historically (particularly, during the agrarian revolution), people had more children because human labor was the primary factor of production (Holt 2014). Therefore, the more people/children a family or nation had, the more prosperous it was. Indeed, to achieve economic prosperity, parents had many children.

However, the mechanization of labor and the development of new technologies of production brought a paradigm shift to the social and economic development of many countries by substituting human for mechanized labor as the primary factor of production. The impact of this paradigm shift was an increase in wealth and a lower reliance on human labor for production (Holt 2014). According to Marxist principles, such economic developments influenced people’s decision to have children because human labor was no longer in high demand as it was in the past (Holt 2014). Consequently, people did not see a need to have many children. The effect of this change was a decline in fertility rates among wealthy nations.

Japan has experienced the same socioeconomic change because its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the post-war era increased at an average of 11% per annum and it was later followed by a decline in fertility rates (Ogawa 2005).

This rapid increase in GDP has been fueled by many factors, but as Ogawa (2005) suggests, abundant high-quality labor, the use of advanced technologies from developed nations, and a generally favorable global trading environment accounted for this change. Therefore, by modernizing its economy, Japan became wealthier and more reliant on technology as opposed to people. This change draws the link between wealth creation and a decline in fertility rates in Japan. Consequently, fewer Japanese adults are having children because they enjoy high standards of living and a high per capita income in not only the Asian peninsular but also in the world (Otsu and Shibayama 2016).

How Will the Future Look Like?

Owing to the increase in Japan’s elderly population, researchers have shown that the familial support ratio in the country is projected to significantly decline because of the imbalance in the population of young and elderly people (Otsu and Shibayama 2016). Supporting this claim, Ogawa (2005) reported that in the year 2000, this ratio was 1.3 and in 2010, it dropped to 0.65. In 20 years, the decline is expected to be 50% (Ogawa 2005).

These statistics indicate that the potential for the elderly to rely on young people to cater for their needs in old age will decline significantly (Ogawa 2005). Ogawa (2005) also draws attention to the effects of the population decline on Japan’s family structures because the author suggests that the percentage of multigenerational households (which is estimated at 20%) of Japanese families will decrease as the number of single generation or single person households increase (Ogawa 2005). This observation is made against a backdrop of studies, which have shown that Japan still has among the highest percentage of multigenerational households among industrialized nations (Ogawa 2005; Kumagai 2010; Otsu and Shibayama 2016).

For example, compared to America, which only reports 2% of multigenerational households, 20% of Japan’s households are multigenerational (Ogawa 2005). Similarly, compared to Sweden, Japan’s multigenerational families are 20 times more in number (Ogawa 2005). Based on these insights, Japan’s family structure could be affected by the increase in the percentage of elderly people in the country by becoming more individualistic.

Government’s Approach to the Problem

The government of Japan has been cognizant of the social and economic effects of a decline in the country’s population as well as an increase in the number of elderly people. It has responded to this issue in two ways. The first one is encouraging women to participate in the workforce because of significant improvements in workplace policies that encourage more women to participate in the workforce, as opposed to staying at home, which has traditionally been the norm (Junichi 2014).

Most of the focus for implementing these policies has been on empowering women economically to feel confident and comfortable enough to start a family. For instance, the government has legislated against the discrimination of women in the workplace and discouraged employers from not paying women their dues if they get pregnant. Consequently, women in Japan have enjoyed longer maternity leaves and protection from harassment because of their childbearing status. At the same time, the Japanese government has developed policies aimed at increasing the fertility rate of its population through the improvement of child welfare services (Junichi 2014).

The second way the Government of Japan has addressed the population decline in the country is by improving the welfare of the elderly. For example, it has formulated new laws to make the elderly participate more in the economic development of the country. Underscoring the government’s efforts to restore a balance in population between the elderly and the young is the need to manage rural-urban immigration, which has seen many young people leave Japan’s rural areas for big cities in search of work. Consequently, the aging population in Japan has been left unattended in the rural areas without proper care in their old age.

In response to this crisis, the government has improved welfare services for the elderly in many rural communities by providing nursing care facilities and financial resources through long-term care insurance. For example, in 1990, the government introduced the Gold Care Insurance Plan to reduce the social and economic burden experienced by families when taking care of their aging parents (Junichi 2014). The involvement of the government in improving the welfare of its citizens aligns with Marxists principles, which suggest that low fertility rates are linked to an increase in welfare support (Holt 2014). Indeed, in the past, adults bore many children to take care of them in their old age. However, the government has substituted the role of the young, thereby negating the need to bear children to take care of the elderly.

Pros and Cons of Ageing Population

Cons

According to Otsu and Shibayama (2016), Japan’s aging population is likely to affect its economic growth because the government will have to spend more resources on health care to take care of the needs of the elderly population. Socially, it is estimated that the phenomenon will increase the dependency ratio in the country and decrease its societal vitality (Otsu and Shibayama 2016). Economically, it is projected that the aging population in the country could reduce the number of working age population and the vitality of Japan’s economy (Otsu and Shibayama 2016).

The same phenomenon is associated with a decline in the tax base, meaning that the Japanese government could report a decline in revenue to finance its operations because of the shrinking working population. At the same time, the government could experience a shortage in pension funds and a decline in social security funds because a growing elderly population will demand more payouts, which could be higher than the volume of contributions made to these pooled funds. This situation means that Japan could experience “economic stagnation.”

Pros

An increase in the size of the elderly population in Japan, relative to other age groups, has been reported from a negative standpoint because the phenomenon poses a threat to the economic development and social integration of the Japanese society (Kudo, Mutisya and Nagao 2015).

However, this issue is not all negative because the phenomenon has created significant progress in the advancement of women’s issues in the workplace. Indeed, as highlighted in this paper, part of the response of the Japanese government has been the creation of gender progressive practices in the workplace to encourage more women to join the labor force. Consequently, Japan has witnessed the institutionalization of some of the most progressive gender equality policies in the labor movement (Otsu and Shibayama 2016).

A decline in Japan’s population has also improved the welfare of its citizens because the government has increasingly recognized children and the elderly as special interest groups whose needs should be taken seriously (Junichi 2014). For example, child welfare services have improved because of an increase in the government’s commitment to encouraging young people to have children (Junichi 2014). In other words, the government’s effort to create an easier environment for young people to have children has had a positive impact on the welfare of children all over the country. The same gains can be relayed to the elderly population because the government’s efforts to improve the social and economic safety of the elderly has resulted in a general improvement of their welfare.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Conclusion

This research paper has demonstrated that Japan is experiencing an unprecedented period of population decline because of low fertility rates and high suicide rates, which have decreased the number of young people and increased that of the elderly. Evidence of this demographic change has been highlighted by the increased percentage of people who are aged 65 years and above in the country.

The decline in the population of Japan has largely been attributed to Marxism, which presupposes that an increase in a country’s wealth is often accompanied by a decline in its population. Stated differently, countries, like Japan, which have experienced significant increases in wealth, are more likely to have low fertility rates compared to less developed countries, which have not modernized their economies.

A decline in population could negatively affect the economic growth of Japan because of a decrease in the working population and an increased financial burden of taking care of the elderly. Socially, an increase in the population of elderly people has created a need for the Japanese government to improve the welfare services for the elderly and provide financial resources to them through pension schemes. The government’s response has also spread to the improvement of workplace conditions to encourage more women to join the workforce and the improvement of child welfare services to encourage more young people to have children.

Although the government of Japan has tried to respond to the decline in the country’s population through appropriate legislative interventions, such initiatives have not yielded the desired results because of deeply entrenched cultural beliefs and stereotypes about childbearing and the family structure in Japan. The difficulty of changing such deeply entrenched beliefs is a barrier to reversing the trend in population decline. However, there is hope for recovery if the following recommendations are adopted.

Recommendations

Support the Involvement of Immigrant Labor in the Workforce

The government of Japan needs to consider increasing the involvement of immigrant labor in the country’s workforce to address the labor gaps created by an increasingly older workforce. Such a strategy will make sure that there is adequate labor to take care of older citizens in the same manner developed countries like America and the United Kingdom (U.K) do (Junichi 2014). The immigrant workforce could also bridge the labor gap that could emerge in some of Japan’s major industries, such as the automobile industry, which require a young workforce to work on the assembly lines. Here, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that Japan’s government has historically promoted a culture of homogeneity, which prefers that the country’s population be largely Japanese (Otsu and Shibayama 2016).

This policy is also seen in its strict immigration policies and citizenship acquisition status, which make it difficult for people from other countries to work or live in Japan. The government needs to relax some of these rules to increase the percentage of people from developing countries who want to come to Japan. One of the main reasons for pursuing this strategy is the practicality associated with the proposal because it is easier to relax the country’s immigration policies to allow more immigrants to live and work in Japan, as opposed to convincing native Japanese to give birth to more children. Indeed, convincing the population to have more children would require a significant overhaul of the country’s social architecture – a process that is difficult to achieve.

Align Government Objectives with People Goals

Part of the reason for the failure of the Japanese government to increase the country’s population growth rate has been its inability to align its population needs with those of the public. On one hand, the government is encouraging the people to give birth to more children to safeguard national economic and social interests, but on the other hand, the people are concerned with how the decision to have more children integrates with their individual lives/needs.

Therefore, there is a clash between national and individual interests, which have not been effectively addressed by current government policies. Since the Japanese government is currently considering reinforcing some of its population-centered programs, the process of developing population-centered programs needs to be reviewed to merge national and individual interests. More importantly, future government initiatives aimed at increasing the country’s population should be sensitive to people’s social and cultural needs, as opposed to only meeting national interests.

References

Holt, Justin. 2014. The Social Thought of Karl Marx. New York: SAGE Publications.

Junichi, Akashi. 2014. “New Aspects of Japan’s Immigration Policies: Is Population Decline Opening the Doors?” Contemporary Japan 26 (2): 175-196.

Kudo, Shogo, Emmanuel Mutisya, and Masafumi Nagao. 2015. “Population Aging: An Emerging Research Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Social Sciences 4 (4): 940-966.

Kumagai, Fumie. 2010. “Forty Years of Family Change in Japan: A Society Experiencing Population Aging and Declining Fertility.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 41 (4): 581-610.

Ogawa, Naohiro. 2005. “Population Aging and Policy Options for a Sustainable Future: The Case of Japan.” Genus 61 (3/4): 369-410.

Otsu, Keisuke, and Katsuyuki Shibayama. 2016. “Population Aging and Potential Growth in Asia.” Asian Development Review 33 (2): 56-73.

Usman, Muhammad, and Ikufumi Tomimoto. 2013. “The Aging Population of Japan: Causes, Expected Challenges, and Few Possible Recommendations.” Research Journal of Recent Sciences 2 (11): 1-4.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Ageing Society in Japan: Sociological & Philosophical View." May 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ageing-society-in-japan-sociological-amp-philosophical-view/.

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