Fewer people, more problems
Atypical view of Japan features large cities teeming with people and rural districts suffering from depopulation. Although the population distribution may be lopsided, a population shortage has never been a problem for the nation as a whole. This, however, will hold true for only a few more years.
According to estimates published last month by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the nation's population will peak in 2006, then begin a prolonged decline. A Japan with fewer people may sound attractive, but writer Makoto Nukaga thinks otherwise. In his book ```Kaso retto' no kodoku'' (The solitude of the ``depopulated archipelago,'' Jiji Press, 1,800 yen), the former Bank of Japan employee, who currently heads a bank-related research institute, depicts a grim economic future and discusses ways to generate regional vitality.
Generally, the population issue has been regarded as a problem concerning pensions and kaigo (care of the elderly) in an aging society with fewer children. ``The population problem is more about economic viability,'' writes Nukaga. The author notes that Kobe, whose population fell by 100,000 within a year of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, has been unable to achieve recovery even after roads and buildings were rebuilt. Fewer residents and visitors to the city mean weak sales for shops, hotels and restaurants. The region's purchasing power, income and tax revenues have declined and hurt businesses as well as the municipal government.
Falling population will also reduce the labor supply. As countermeasures, Nukaga suggests creating an environment that encourages women and the elderly to enter the work force and increasing labor productivity through technical progress. He nevertheless points out that Japan, whose unemployment rate exceeds 5 percent, does not suffer from a shortage of labor.
Some may think that a society with fewer people will be a paradise where environmental destruction, traffic congestion and pollution will be reduced and people can live in larger houses. Nukaga writes that decades will be required before such conditions can result and that major economic friction will occur in the meantime.
According to Nukaga, the bursting of the economic bubble and the turmoil of the financial system in the 1990s diminished demand for goods and services and brought on persistent deflationary economic stagnation. Depopulation will worsen matters since it will sap regions of their economic energy.
Turning his eyes overseas, Nukaga writes that unlike the United States, whose population growth rate was a robust 1 percent a year even in the 1990s, major European countries have tended to have lower birth rates from as far back as the late 19th century and have long been tackling the problem. On the other hand, since Japan will age rapidly at an unprecedented rate during the next decade, the time to come up with effective countermeasures is limited.
As one way to revive a region, the writer focuses on a new form of tourism, namely, an ``interactive tourism without hot springs or theme parks.'' Nukaga cites a successful case of a fishing village in Shizuoka Prefecture where elderly residents help students on school trips experience fishing and village life. Similar programs are offered elsewhere in Japan, contributing to regional revitalization.
``Tourism is one of the world's largest industries-and a growing industry at that.'' Nukaga stresses that to counter the impact of depopulation, all residents of a region must set their minds on attracting visitors and securing a steady flow of income. As the most significant participant in the region, the municipal government must play a role in the initiative.
Nukaga focuses on the strong sense of stagnation that prevails in society today, as we face a stalled economy that could not be jump-started by policies promoting the information technology industry. The public is also dismayed by the nation's massive debt, created by accommodating the interests of particular political parties, regions, industries and pressure groups.
``The Japanese economy lost its luster in the 1990s,'' writes Nukaga, who nevertheless points out that economic stagnation and our ``cast-adrift feeling'' are consequences of our own choices. We are the ones who created and burst the bubble economy, who reduced the birthrate and who allowed the budget deficit to mushroom.
Citing the recent rise in the number of Japanese who are emigrating, Nukaga stresses that common ideals and hope for the future are essential for ``reducing our solitude'' and regaining a sense of solidarity. He believes that regional revitalization programs can help accomplish those goals.