Japan's demographic time bomb is getting more dire, and it's a bad omen for the country

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images
  • Japan’s population is getting older.
  • While ageing populations are presenting economic difficulties in much of the developed world, the problem in Japan is dire: The country’s birth rate last year dropped to its lowest level since statistics were kept in 1899.
  • There are now more adult diapers sold than baby diapers in Japanese supermarkets.

Japan’s population is shrinking fast.

The number of babies born in the country last year dropped to 946,060, and it’s the second year when new births remained below 1 million, Japan’s government said. It’s the lowest level since the country began counting in 1899.

At the same time, the number of deaths in the country – owing to the increasingly ageing population – hit a postwar high of 1.3 million. That means Japan’s population fell by a whopping 394,373 people in 2017.

In a demographic time bomb, fertility rates fall at the same time that longevity increases.

An ageing population like Japan’s poses numerous problems. The government will have to spend more on healthcare, and that, coupled with a shrinking workforce and tax base, is a recipe for economic stagnation. It also means, among other things, that there will not be enough young people to care for the elderly.

“An ageing population will mean higher costs for the government, a shortage of pension and social-security-type funds, a shortage of people to care for the very aged, slow economic growth, and a shortage of young workers,” Mary Brinton, a Harvard sociologist,told Business Insider last year.

Japan’s demographic time bomb has been a long time coming.

The country’s population grew rapidly throughout the 20th century, from 44 million in 1900 to 128 million in 2000, Quartz reports. But since then, fertility rates have fallen precipitously.

In the 1970s, Japanese women on average had 2.1 kids. Today that number is only 1.4 – far below the replacement rate, or the rate at which Japan would maintain its population.

The US is suffering from similar problems, but not quite to the same extent as Japan. The fertility rate in the US is estimated to be 1.76, an all-time low but still slightly higher than Japan’s.

Japan set a goal to increase the birth rate to 1.8 by 2025 and to maintain a population of about 100 million people by 2060. That will be easier said than done.

Of 127 million people, there are 67,824 people over the age of 100, the highest rate of centenarians of any country. Senior citizens over the age of 65 make up more than a quarter of the population.

In perhaps the biggest sign of the problem, adult diapers now outsell baby diapers in Japanese supermarkets.

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