Japan’s Aging Populace and its Effects as a Social Problem

13 Dec 2007

The Japanese people have the longest life expectancy on Earth. This is an admirable accomplishment and there is no doubt that Japan is proud of this statistic. However, a predicament materializes when other statistics are published as well. Japan has the oldest population on the planet and its birthrate is well below the replacement level. There have been many published essays and reports on Japan’s future demographic and its projected impact on the socioeconomic foundation. Essayist Phil Mullan believes that the aging population is an imaginary social problem, while others, such as Paul Hewitt, harbor a more pessimistic view (Hewitt 2003). This synopsis concurs with Hewitt; social problems emerging from this crisis are taking an immediate effect. The economy has been severely impacted by a rapidly shrinking labor force. The lack of any legitimate social security system is crippling the nation’s corporations (Hewitt 2003). In order to dissect this issue appropriately, this research paper will analyze causes and effects of the problem, sociological theories, and recommend adjustments to policy. In light of the evidence, it is clear that Japan must take the necessary corrective action in order to mollify the effects of an aged populace, combined with a declining birthrate. Failure to confront this issue will lead to disastrous consequences.

It is important to note that Japan’s abnormally large elderly population is not a social problem by itself. There are many factors that contribute to the dilemma. According to one study, less than a tenth of Japanese mothers actually enjoy taking care of children compared to other nations that hold statistics of forty to seventy percent. This exacerbates Japan’s low replacement level which is less than two-thirds of where it should be (Hewitt 2003). It is reasonable to attribute these dismal statistics to the recent trend in Japanese culture. Women are becoming more independent, breaking away from the traditional patriarchal roles that were so prevalent in Japanese ancestry. Asians in general are a very determined and hard-working people. Many women now see motherhood as an unnecessary hindrance that will interrupt their careers.

The Japanese people, unlike many Americans, respect their elders. American senior citizens are typically shunned away and are forced to retire by businesses in order to make room for young, fresh college graduates. Despite how insensitive this might be, it is actually necessary for the survival of capitalism. Japan has reversed this logical course of employment. Japan’s government is stuck in an infinite loop with what they call “the lifetime employment” act. Instead of having a government-run social security policy, it is the responsibility of the employers to keep elders on the payroll even if the work they perform is of little or no value. It is estimated that there are 17 million “non-working workers”. Aggravating this problem is that young, valuable workers are comparably underpaid, while old and ineffectual workers are overpaid (Hewitt 2003). The unbearable high cost that corporations must pay out is invariably passed on to consumers. And now that Japan has become increasingly more involved with international markets over the last few decades, the competition has increased as well. Many of those corporations could not avoid dropping their prices—straining their ability to support their elderly non-workers even more.

One of the more pressing points is how to lighten the strain of probable increased taxes on a shrinking workforce that needs to support an ever growing elderly population. Japan’s economy is currently hitting deficits of 130 to 140 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Dejevsky 2006). Its pension system is in dire need of substantial correction, which makes higher taxes inevitable in order to offer satisfactory social security benefits. This puts Japanese politicians in a quandary that affects US politicians as well. Do they support higher taxes or potentially draconian cuts to beneficiaries? In either case, it is a political nightmare for current officeholders (Dejevsky 2006).

The life cycle theory of economics can explain another way that the elderly in Japan are leeching off the economy. Middle-aged and seniors do not spend nearly as much money as younger adults do. In typical industrial nations, the elders’ under-consumption is offset by the young consumers. However, with Japan’s sizeable elderly population, this is obviously a significant economic bottleneck (Economy Professor).

Another problem that is arising is the need for Japan to accept widespread immigration that is sorely needed to augment its shrinking labor pool. Japan for most of its history has been an insular society, disdainful of foreigners. This will directly affect the sociological underpinnings that have defined Japanese culture for centuries (French 2003). Japan has never been foreigner friendly; in fact their treatment of them shows that there are far-reaching, entrenched intolerance towards foreigners, especially against fellow Asians. A prime example of this prejudice is the circumscribed civil rights accorded to Korean Japanese, who were born in Japan but not naturalized. It is an arduous process for immigrants who have lived in the country for many years and have learned the language and customs to be completely accepted in this closed society, since foreigners are hardly ever thought of as true Japanese (French 2003).

Demographers speculate that by the middle of this century, Japan will have one million centenarians, with thirty percent less people. The population will decline at a rate of about 800,000 per year, with the present population decreased by one-half by the century’s close (French 2003).

A UN report recently forecast that to maintain the size of its working population, Japan would need 17 million new immigrants by 2050, which would represent 18 percent of the Japanese population compared to today’s one percent (United Nations). Hiroshi Komai, a population expert at Tsukuba University elaborates,

The kinds of figures the demographers talk about are unimaginable for Japan. In a quarter-century we have only absorbed one million immigrants. (French 2003)

With Japan clinging to widely held conservative ideas regarding their “homogenous” state; it is difficult to foresee any appreciable influx of immigrants to alleviate the coming shortfall in the Japanese workforce. However, it is imperative for Japan to address this issue head on if it plans to remain an economic force on the world’s stage in the years to come.

A sociologist may look at the social problem and feel compelled to apply the conflict theory which suggests that one group has dominance over another in a society (Macionis 2007). Conflict theory may appear reasonable at first glance; the only ones benefiting from this social problem are the elderly themselves. The seniors also have incredible political power and continuously vote for laws that suite their best interest. But the conflict theory can not be applied to this problem because seniors in all democratic nations contain those characteristics. There is nothing wrong with voting for one’s self-interest—that is what any rational human being would do anyway. Therefore, conflict theory would be ill-suited to correctly illustrate the problem of the aging populace in Japan. The acceptable theory to be applied here is the social constructionist theory (Macionis 2007). The Japanese society’s attitude towards its elderly is certainly that of respect, admiration, and veneration. This notion, as beautiful as it sounds, has been socially constructed throughout the ages of Japanese ancestry. This aptly explains why new immigration laws are so difficult to pass. Japanese elderly want this tradition and all other Japanese norms to survive. There is no doubt that these customs would be compromised if 20% of the nation’s population were immigrants. Until these social constructs fall, the likelihood of any real, significant change is quite low.

In addition to increasing immigration, government officials and economists have suggested a myriad of possible solutions to combat the impact of the graying of Japan. Outsourcing of labor to other countries has been tried with mixed reviews. The high quality that has been associated with Japanese products since the seventies could be at risk, since much of the outsourced work is considered substandard when compared to “normal” Japanese levels (French 2003).

Another option and a more elemental approach would be to entice more men to work past the normal retirement age while promoting women to join the workforce. As compared to other societies, Japanese women are an abundant, yet underutilized asset when it comes to employment (Dejevsky 2006). Convincing more women to re-enter the job market after bearing children, would be a critical step in solving the scarcity of the labor pool. According to Dr. Kuniko Inoguchi, the Minister for gender equality and social affairs states that contrary to popular opinion, Japanese women have a strong presence in the work force. Dr. Inoguchi explains the true issue is that after child birth, women are expected to be stay at home moms, as was the case in Britain and the United States during the 1950’s (Dejevsky 2006). There are also consequences for more women attaining jobs. Childcare is not as readily available in Japan as in other industrialized societies. Also, the caring for elderly by their daughters will dramatically decline as well. However, solving the latter two problems is much less onerous than having a shortfall in the labor market with decreased productivity, and the extreme negative impact that would leave on Japanese society.

There also is current debate on providing various incentives for bearing children. They include tax credits and grants. The hope is that increased benefits will reverse the declining birth rates in Japan. Dr. Inoguchi cautions that this solution alone will not stem that tide. She contends that Japanese morals, beliefs and attitudes need to be reformed for any significant change to be realized (Dejevsky 2006). A mere two percent of babies are born out of wedlock, and yet the social shame one has to endure remains pervasive. Japanese women have been getting married at later ages and more women than ever are never getting married. According to Dr. Inoguchi, unless more single women decide to have children, the prospect of increasing the birthrate will be dim (Dejevsky 2006).

Some analysts have taken up a more optimistic view of Japan’s age demographics. They point out the health and longevity of the population, especially when contrasted to other industrialized nations. They also argue that Japan has been a technological leader, and therefore will be able to discover and apply hi-tech solutions. There feeling is that Japan will be able to prosper, even with an aging population and a declining birthrate (Hewitt 2003). Unfortunately, a closer introspection reveals the opposite.

American society can learn from the Japanese culture and way of life—especially when it pertains to elders. However, Japan’s increasingly aged population is a social problem that will not dissipate by itself. The only way to approach the problem is to assault it at various angles—increasing the birthrate, increasing immigration, and an effective social security policy, while at the same time preventing the labor force from shrinking too rapidly. Radical change in laws and social constructs of Japan must take place soon because an economic collapse may be imminent.


Dejevsky, Mary. 2006. “Japan: A Country in Crisis.” The Independent, August 26. Retrieved December 10, 2007 (http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article1221544.ece)

Economy Professor. “Life-cycle Hypothesis.” Retrieved December 10, 2007.

French, Howard. 2003. “Insular Japan Needs, But Resists, Immigration.” New York Times, July 24. Retrieved December 10, 2007. (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E7D9153FF937A15754C0A9659C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1)

Hewitt, Paul S. 2003. “The Gray Roots of Japan’s Crisis.” The Demographic Dilemma: Japan’s Aging Society. Retrieved December 10, 2007. (http://wwics.si.edu/events/docs/ACFE9.pdf)

Macionis, John. 2007. Social Problems. 3rd Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

United Nations. Population Division. 1998. Replacement Migration: Japan (http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/migration/japan.pdf)