There are few metaphors more hackneyed than Japan’s “demographic time bomb.” It is a never-failing source of copy for aspiring journalists on slow news days. Stories about it keep popping up like so many mushrooms, all bearing more or less the same lugubrious burden. Recent examples included the following from the Business Insider:
Experts call situations like Japan’s “demographic time bombs.” They’re places where fertility rates are falling at the same time that longevity is increasing. Without young people to support older generations, economies can shrink, putting even more pressure on younger generations to keep families small and budget-friendly.
Another article that turned up last month at Zero Hedge cited some dire statistical trends:
Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink – or disappear completely.
In another article in The Economist, ominously entitled “The incredible shrinking country,” the ubiquitous “time bomb” again raises its ugly head:
A quiet but constant ticking can be heard from the demographic time bomb that sits beneath the worlds third-largest economy. This week it made a louder tick than usual: official statistics show that the population declined last year by a record 244,000 people – roughly the population of the London bureau of Hackney… The 2012 government report said that without policy change, by 2110 the number of Japanese could fall to 42.9m, ie just a third of its current population. It is plausible to think that the country could learn to live with its shrinking population. But that might mean also embracing a much diminished economic and political role in the world.
The amazing thing about these repetitious articles is their utter lack of any historical context. It turns out that Japan’s population has been a “ticking time bomb” for well over a century. However, back in the day it was ticking in a different direction. For example, according to an article that appeared in the April, 1904 issue of the British Edinburgh Review, discussing the conflict in the Far East that would soon culminate in the Russo-Japanese war,
In 1872 the population of Japan amounted to only 33,110,793; in 1900 it was 44,805,937, already too great for her territory.
A few decades later the “time bomb” was still ticking in drive instead of reverse. As noted in an article at the website of Australia’s Pacific War Historical Society,
Between 1918 and 1930, Japan’s population had expanded dramatically and outstripped the capacity of the nation’s resources to support it. To sustain its population blow-out, substantial food imports were essential, but foreign tariffs imposed on its exports of manufactured goods limited the capacity of Japan to pay for its food imports. Japan had tried to deal with its population problem by encouraging emigration of Japanese to countries such as the United States, but had met resistance from Americans who feared the loss of unskilled jobs to cheap immigrant labour.
This time, of course, the “time bomb” led to Japan’s disastrous decision to attack the United States. Even after the war there was much wringing of hands about its rapid forward progress. For example from an article that appeared in the December, 1950 issue of the American Mercury,
Our exceedingly efficient Public Health and Welfare Division has succeeded in driving down Japan’s death rate from 29.2 per thousand in 1945 to only 10.9 per thousand in 1949. The birthrate, meanwhile, was rising to 32.8. Thus, with our help, Japan’s population is now increasing at the rate of 1,800,000 per year. Every morning there are 5,000 more Japanese than yesterday… How can we say that we have helped Japan when Japan is less self-sufficient today than she has ever been.
A few thoughts come to mind in light of these rather substantial changes to the nature of the “time bomb” over the years. It appears that Japan was so desperate about the apparent impossibility of feeding her rapidly expanding population that she was willing to risk war with Russia in 1904 and with the United States in 1941. In those years her population was around 47 million and 73 million, respectively. Now her population is 127 million, and suggestions that she supplement her dwindling work force by massive immigration are considered the soul of wisdom. For example, from an article that appeared in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs,
Japan must embrace immigration as a solution to its impending fiscal and demographic woes. A declining birthrate is a global trend, as is an ageing population. It will therefore be increasingly difficult for any country to meet all of its labor needs relying solely on the population that exists within its borders. In the case of Japan, more caregivers, nurses, and other providers catering to a graying society will be needed, especially if more women choose to go back to work full-time. The Japanese government will thus inevitably need to consider seriously the possibility of opening its doors to more immigration, rather than just to the highly skilled workers it currently courts. Although the Japanese have been at the forefront of developing robots designed to meet the mounting tsunami of elderly people’s needs, there is a limit to what can be expected from technology, especially when the psychological as well as physical needs of an ageing society are considered.
This, of course, is one of the standard globalist rationalizations of the suicidal policy of promoting mass immigration. Heaven forefend that Japan ever sheds her “xenophobia” and concludes that she “must” accept this brilliant “solution” to her “time bomb” problem. It boggles the mind! How is it that all the environmental issues raised by mindlessly expanding the already massive population on the relatively small Japanese archipelago have suddenly evaporated? Is our planet really such a stable place that a country that once despaired about the impossibility of feeding 47 million will now never again have to worry about feeding three times as many or more? Is it safe for her to assume that climate change and/or political instability will never impair her ability to feed all those millions? If the assumption that nothing in the world will ever happen to threaten her food supply turns out to be wrong, Japan’s problem of caring for its senior citizens could easily pale compared to the potential problem of mass starvation. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine anything more self-destructive than importing a massive population of people who will perceive the existing population of Japan as an outgroup, will be perceived by that population in turn as an outgroup, and will remain unassimilable indefinitely. Is it really necessary to demonstrate yet again the disastrous results of pretending there’s no such thing as human nature?
I have an alternative suggestion. Let the “time bomb” continue to tick in reverse. It’s unlikely it will remain stuck in that position indefinitely, any more than it remained stuck in fast forward. If the Japanese are really lucky, perhaps their population will decline to around 30 million, which was more or less what it was for hundreds of years before the Meiji Restoration. I suspect their islands will be much more pleasant places to live at that level than they would be with the 150 million and up that the helpful people at Georgetown suggest it would take to defuse the “time bomb.” I doubt that Japan would “lose face” due to declining economic and political clout in the world as a result, even if it mattered whether she “lost face” or not. As a survivor of the “time bomb” it would be more likely that other countries would look on her as a role model. She needn’t necessarily worry that such a small population would encourage aggression by her neighbors. Japan possesses many tons of plutonium, which can be put to other uses than the peaceful production of nuclear power if need be.