As Japan’s Population Shrinks, Bears and Boars Roam Where Schools and Shrines Once Thrived

Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2016

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All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years, even as urban areas have continued to grow modestly. But like a creaky wooden roller coaster that slows at the top of the climb before plunging into a terrifying, steep descent, Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed.

Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population–40 million people–by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

If the United States experienced a similar population contraction, it would be like losing every single inhabitant of California, New York, Texas and Florida–more than 100 million people.

Though demographers have long anticipated the transformation Japan is now facing, the country only now seems to be sobering up to the epic metamorphosis at hand.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. Aging small-business owners and farmers are having trouble finding successors to take over their enterprises. Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools.

“Now, in every area–land planning, urban planning, economic planning–every branch of government is trying to do what they can,” said Reiko Hayashi, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

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Last fall, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened a panel of Cabinet ministers and experts and vowed that his administration would “bring a halt to the dwindling birthrate and aging population and maintain a population of 100 million people even 50 years from now.”

But barring a baby boom or a radical liberalization of Japan’s restrictive immigration policies, many experts say Abe’s goal is hopelessly out of reach. Although the government’s target fertility goal of 1.8 children per woman would still be below the replacement rate, even that isn’t realistic, Hayashi believes.

“This is a wish,” she said. “Our fertility measures were launched very late.”

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Japan had about 2.2 million registered foreigners as of December 2015. That’s a near doubling since 1980. Today in Tokyo, it’s possible to find Italians and Uzbeks working in 7-Elevens, while Bangladeshis are being hired as ski lift attendants at alpine resorts.

But foreigners still make up just 1.7% of the population, and that figure includes tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans who were born and raised in Japan but are not full Japanese citizens.

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Ippei Torii, president of a nonprofit group called Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, said leaders including Abe have clung to the idea of Japan as a mono-ethnic state, ignoring the presence of minority groups such as the Ainu in the north or the Ryukyu in Okinawa, not to mention Koreans.  

Politicians, he added, have propagated the myth that foreigners commit crimes at a higher rate than Japanese and have suggested that more immigrants could make the country vulnerable to terrorism. Labor unions have also put up a fight.

“Look at nurses, they believe their income will be cut if we let in Filipinos and Indonesians,” said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a sociologist at Toyo University in Tokyo. “They also say that these people can’t speak Japanese well and that could be risky. Yet, at the same time, they complain about severe overwork and say we need to add nurses.”

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