Japan, long one of America’s most important allies in the Pacific, is a primary counterweight to the growing power of China in the region.
Japan is a cultural and economic powerhouse. But its ability to mount an effective military deterrence in the fact of a rising China may shrink in the coming decades as Japan faces a substantial problem: impending demographic collapse.
Japan’s overall population is set to contract by almost a third within the next 90 years. This sharp population cut would almost irreversibly limit the nation’s military capabilities.
Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst, writes for Overt Action:
Japan currently has some 127 million citizens, but according to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, this number will shrink by 2060 to 86 million, and then to 50 million by the year 2100.
Neither war nor famine is halving Japan’s population, but rather hard demographics. Japan’s birth rate is currently 1.4 children per woman, and the total population has already begun to decline as of 2010.
According to Peritz, demographic decline would lead to greater competition for Japanese youth in every facet of society. As the private sector, government, and the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) would jostle for youth recruitment, fewer and fewer young Japanese would enter the military leading, shrinking the armed forces at a time when China becomes more and more assertive.
Currently, the Japanese SDF is thought to be one of the top ten most effective fighting forces in the world even though it can only be used defensively or in international humanitarian missions. However, a slow-motion cratering of the Japanese population would hamstring the country’s ability to defend itself, let along project power beyond its home island chain.
To compensate for its small population, Japan has signaled it will purchase the latest in military equipment for national defence. Tokyo has plans to purchase the latest AEGIS destroyer as well as the F-35.
Still, as Peritz notes, even with the latest equipment, Japanese national security capacity will become squeezed as there would be “fewer overall high-quality recruits in both enlisted and officer corps.”
Demographics aside, the Japanese public is still largely against any military policy that extends beyond self-defence.
In a 2013 Pew research poll, 56% of the Japanese public said they were opposed to any sort of Japanese military effort other than defence, although there was a gradual trend towards military action becoming more acceptable within the Japanese public.
This opposition to militarism has sometimes taken on an extreme tone. On Nov. 12, a Japanese man set himself on fire to protest Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s amending of the constitution to allow for the Japanese military to take part in collective self-defence with other countries.
The debate over what role the military should play in Japanese life, coupled with demographic changes, is likely to become a more polarising concern. Two prominent members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party have floated the idea of amending the constitution in order to institute conscription within Japan in an effort to bolster the ranks of the Japanese SDF.
Currently, over a third of Japan’s population is at least 55 years old.