Japan's Demographic Future

The phrase “1.57 Shock” was widely used in Japan 20 years ago in reaction to the lowest fertility rate in the country’s history. Recorded in 1989, this rate was even lower than the previous record of 1966. Japan has been on a mission to raise its birth rate. After 1989, however, the country’s total fertility rate (TFR) continued its decline, reaching an all-time low of 1.26 lifetime births per woman in 2005.

Hoping to encourage more births, the government instituted the “Angel Plan” in 1994 to assist couples in raising children. The program tried to make raising children less stressful by offering counseling to couples and encouraging fathers to take an equal role in childrearing. Later, in the New Angel Plan, more convenient daycare centers were envisioned but a lack of funds impeded progress. As part of the New Angel Plan, payments from the government to support childrearing are limited to 26,000 yen per child per month (about US$280). There has been a small increase in the TFR, reaching 1.37 in 2008. Birth rates have risen slightly for all in the childbearing ages, although somewhat faster for women ages 35 to 39. Preliminary birth figures just released for 2009 show that the number of births fell to 1,087,000 from 1,108,000 the year before. Since the number of deaths in 2009 was 1,146,000, the country had a natural decrease of 183,000. However, many industrialized countries experienced a dip in the number of births in 2009, likely due to the effects of the nearly worldwide recession.

A More Friendly Environment for Marriage and Childrearing

In 2009, Japan introduced a much broader version of the Angel Plan, recognizing that its past attempts to encourage childbearing had shown few results. This latest version was passed unanimously by the Japanese Diet.1 Provisions of different laws provided for the well-being of the elderly as well as easing childbearing burdens for families.

The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has noted that “the key is breaking the situation forcing people to choose between work or marriage/child.”2 In surveys, the ministry reported that over 90 percent of couples did want to marry and want at least two children when they do marry. Fulfilling those two desires would raise the TFR to about 1.8, the ministry estimates. To the extent that those figures are realistic, it seems possible to raise the birth rate. The new program intends to remove “workaholic” aspects of Japanese society that are often blamed for its very low fertility by making society more conducive to the sharing of childrearing and household duties, encouraging men to spend more time at home, and allowing mothers with young children to remain in the work force. Among its many goals is raising the percentage of women who remain in the labor force from the current 38 percent to 55 percent in 10 years. In 2008, women’s labor force participation dropped to 76 percent for those ages 25 to 29 and to 65 percent for those in their 30s. In the United States, women’s labor force participation has remained virtually constant at about 75 percent between ages 25 and 39, the prime ages for childbearing.3 The current law has other goals:

  • To encourage workers to use 100 percent of their paid annual leave as opposed to the current 47 percent.
  • To halve the proportion of employees who work 60 hours per week or more from the current 11 percent.
  • To increase the amount of time husbands spend on child care and housework from the present 1 hour per day to 2.5 hours per day.
  • To increase the proportion of those ages 60 to 64 who are working from 53 percent currently to 60 percent.
  • To reduce the number of “freeters,” or youth who skip from one part-time/temporary job to another, from the current 1.9 million to 1.5 million or less by helping them find permanent employment.

“Parasitic singles”—an unflattering moniker referring to young people (up to about age 30) who live with their parents rent-free and have disposable income—is a related phenomenon. Upon marriage, young people are expected to purchase a house and take on all the expenses of adulthood on their own, not an attractive prospect in high-priced Japan. Consequently, the age of marriage has risen. In 1950, the average age at first marriage in Japan was 23 for women and 26 for men; by 2008, the average age had jumped to 29 and 30, respectively.4 According to the 2005 Census, 59 percent of females ages 25 to 29 had never been married and, even by ages 30 to 34, one-third remained single.5

A recent revelation that shocked many may also partly explain to Japan’s low fertility: 16 percent, or about 20 million people, live below the official poverty line of an annual income of $22,000 for a family of four. It is also believed that the rate has risen sharply since the early 1990s with the collapse of real estate prices and with more Japanese working for smaller companies that frequently lack the broad range of benefits provided by large corporations.6

Population Projections, Immigration, and Japan’s Future

The most recent population projections for Japan provide a clear picture of Japan’s demographic future, depending on the future course of the birth rate. As of April 2010, 23 percent of the population is 65 or older. The most recent official medium projection, conducted in 2006, shows the population declining from 127 million today to 90 million by 2055; at that point, 41 percent of the population would be 65 or older.7

The shape of Japan’s population pyramid in 2010 and in 2055 gives a dramatic picture of a population with unprecedented aging. The TFR assumed under the medium projection appears a bit low; the projection assumes that the TFR would begin at 1.26 in 2005 and be essentially the same by 2055 (the TFR in 2009 is likely to be about 1.35). The high projection assumes that the TFR would rise to 1.55 by 2055 but even then the total population would only be 97.8 million and the percentage ages 65 and over would be 37.3. Both projections assume a small net emigration of Japanese throughout the projection period and a small but increasing annual net inflow of non-Japanese migrants, from about 50,000 today to 75,000 by 2025. These projections suggest that Japan may have to consider immigration as a solution to unbalanced worker-retiree ratios. Although frequently thought to be anti-immigration, Japan has allowed an increasing number of foreigners to take up residence. In 1950, there were 599,000 non-Japanese in the country, the vast majority Koreans.8 By 2006, the number had risen to 2 million from many countries, with the number of Koreans declining and the number of Chinese rising.

Japan faces an uncertain demographic future. Will its capacity to support a growing number of retirees and fund long-term health care for those of advanced age prove sufficient? Will Japan overcome its traditional resistance to immigration and become a more diverse society? These are the same questions facing other industrialized countries in the European Union and elsewhere.


  1. Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Introduction to the Revised Child Care and Family Care Leave Law, accessed at, on April 28, 2010.
  2. Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Introduction to the Revised Child Care and Family Care Leave Law.
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment and Earnings, February 2010, accessed at, on May 3, 2010.
  4. Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Statistical Handbook of Japan 2009, accessed at, on April 30, 2010.
  5. Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Statistical Yearbook of Japan 2009.
  6. Asahi Shimbun, “Poverty Rate in Japan,” Nov. 5, 2009, accessed at, on May 3, 2010.
  7. Ryuichi Kaneko et al., “Population Projections for Japan: 2006-2055, Outline of Results, Methods, and Assumptions,”The Japanese Journal of Population 6, no. 1 (2008): 76.
  8. Ministry of Justice, “Registered Foreigners by Nationality: 1950-2006,” Annual Report of Statistics on Legal Migrants (Tokyo: Judicial System Department, 2009).

Global Aging and the Demographic Divide

This article was originally printed in the Public Policy & Aging Report 17, no. 4 (2007).

(April 2008) In the latter half of the last century, the world’s developed nations completed a long process of demographic transition.1 The field of demography describes this demographic transition as a shift from a period of high mortality, short lives, and large families to one with a longer life expectancy and far fewer children.

This transformation took many centuries in Europe and North America as people moved from farms to cities; basic public health measures steadily reduced the risk of contagious disease; and modern medicine prolonged lives to unprecedented lengths. In developing countries, this demographic transition is certainly underway, though these countries vary widely at their places along the spectrum.

Very low birth rates and the resultant population decrease have received considerable media attention, particularly in Europe and parts of eastern Asia. In the past, when demographers projected national and global populations, the projections commonly assumed that birth rates would decline worldwide but only to the “two-child” family, i.e., two children per woman or per couple on average. An assumption that fertility would fall below this rate would have some unpleasant consequences: a decrease in population size and a population top-heavy with retired seniors who would depend upon the social taxes paid by a dwindling number of younger workers. While it may not have been desirable to project such a gloomy scenario in the past, this is exactly what has transpired in many countries.

Today, the global population has come to what we may call a great “demographic divide.” Very low birth rates have inflicted long-lasting alterations upon the age structure of Europe, although the effect is more severe in some countries than in others. A real battle has ensued over retirement age. Governments know that the age at which public pensions can be collected should be raised, even though the idea meets frequent public resistance. Labor force shortages are recognized, particularly among less desirable service occupations, but there is little agreement on how to resolve them.

Immigration is one obvious solution and there is no shortage of those willing to migrate to help solve it. But that solution often leads to a fear of losing national identity. Anxiety over immigration is different in Europe than in North America since most Europeans do not see themselves living in multicultural societies. Japan, in particular, is especially resistant to an immigration solution. Debates over how to solve labor force issues range from providing remedial training where it may be needed, to greater inclusion of women in the workforce, to simply raising the birth rate. In Germany, the rallying cry of those opposed to the immigration solution has been “Kinder statt Inder” (Children instead of Indians).

Figure 1 presents the demographic divide with dramatic clarity. It is apparent that, for all practical purposes, all of world population growth is taking place in the developing countries, and it is likely to continue to do so. Of this, there is little doubt. Today, there are about 1.2 billion people living in developed countries and 5.4 in developing countries. By 2050, the number living in developed countries will not have changed but there will be 8 billion in the developing countries.2 In the developed countries, the 1.2 billion number remains constant only because population growth in the United States offsets decreases in Europe and Japan.

Figure 1
World Population Growth, 1950-2050
Source: United Nations, World Population Prospects as Assessed in 2008.

The projections require at least one major caveat. The projected figure for 2050 makes the very important assumption that birth rates in developing countries will continue to decline quite smoothly where they already are declining or will soon begin to decline where they have not as yet begun to do so. This is quite a significant presupposition. In recent years, survey data from quite a few African countries have shown that declines in birth rates have slowed down after declining from very high levels, such as seven or eight children per woman.

Alternative projections of the United Nations suggest that developing countries could surpass 9 billion. Trends in fertility play a key role in projections. The eventual population size of developing countries will be affected by a number of issues, such as what family size will emerge as the standard in the developing world—will it be two children per family? More or less? Further, if fertility declines more slowly in some regions than in others, projections will have to be adjusted. In fact, such adjustments take place all the time, a necessary practice of any forecasting procedure. At least as significant is what Figure 1 does not show. It is not, of course, simply overall population size that matters, but age structure.

Figure 2 illustrates the population “pyramid” of Germany in 2005. Such histograms are called pyramids since they are typically wider at the bottom than at the top, as seen in many pyramids representing developed countries. But Germany’s pyramid has quite a different look. At current rates, women in Germany would average only 1.3 children in their lifetime. The effect of low fertility is plainly evident in the pyramid. The youngest age group, 0-4 at the bottom of the pyramid, is exactly half of the age group 40-44, the largest group. In many low fertility countries, low birth rates are not a recent phenomenon. In Germany, the rather narrow bars beginning with those born 30 to 34 years ago show this clearly. This is a permanent alteration to the country’s age structure that cannot be undone without, of course, increased immigration.

Figure 2
Germany by Age and Sex, 2005

Germany Population Pyramid chart
Source: United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision.

Low fertility countries like Germany are defined by having a total fertility rate (TFR) below 2 children per woman.3 Despite comparatively high fertility and substantial immigration, the United States, with a TFR of 2.05, will also experience unprecedented aging. The TFR is now the most closely watched demographic rate in low fertility countries as it takes the “pulse” of the birth rate each year. A TFR of about 2.1 children is often called the “replacement rate” since, at that rate, couples simply replace themselves, eventually leading to a stationary population size. Below that rate, deaths will at some point exceed births and a population will decline in size.

While the media have paid a lot of attention to “old” Europe, the fertility situation in this region and throughout Asia has considerable variation, and it is important to remain aware of its differences and trends. Generally, countries that have been “family friendly”—in terms of child payments, provision of daycare, and maternity/paternity leave—have fared better than others. This can be seen in the TFRs of northern Europe and France, where fertility is close to two children per woman and has been modestly increasing in recent years.

Confounding the analysis of TFRs are the effects of fluctuations in national economies and employment prospects, and the tendency for childbearing to shift to older ages. A loss of confidence in the economy often results in a reduction or delay in childbearing. When childbearing is delayed, the TFR will decline to a degree and then recover when couples decide “it’s now or never.” Fertility in Sweden has shown substantial swings often attributed to economic effects, rising to 2.1 children around 1990, falling to 1.6 in the mid-1990s and now rising once again. Dramatic fluctuations of that magnitude are not typical, however.

In Europe and eastern Asia, fertility remains at what is seen as catastrophically low levels, and countries have been slow to react. While such attitudes are now changing rapidly, any increases in the TFR are few and far between and modest at best. Reasons for low fertility can vary quite a bit across countries and some examples of those differences are useful.

In Germany, it remains socially unacceptable to leave one’s child in all-day daycare and most kindergartens close at 1:00 PM, placing a significant burden on parents. The new administration of Chancellor Angela Merkel has placed great emphasis on providing a more accommodating climate for couples with young children, by increasing child payments and, ultimately, providing day-long childcare. In so doing, Germany’s policies may become more in line with family-friendly France whose support of young families is legendary.

In Italy, childbearing outside of formal marriage is generally not socially acceptable, as it is in Sweden where over half of births are outside marriage. Young people in Italy face a tight job market, and as a result, marriage and childbearing can be greatly delayed. In Eastern Europe, birth rates had been comparatively high prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. After that event, collapsing economies brought the birth rate down with them quite rapidly; this region now has Europe’s lowest fertility. In Japan, raising children is not only perceived as expensive, but most family duties fall to wives as husbands often work long hours and participate very little in domestic chores.

The future course of TFR will determine the level to which countries will experience societal aging. What might we expect? The degree to which generous family policies affect birth rates is debatable, but the simple fact remains that countries with such policies have the highest TFRs. There is potential for change in low fertility rates, reflected in the results of the Eurobarometer surveys conducted by the European Commission. In the 15 countries surveyed in 2006, the “personal ideal family size” was above two children in all countries except Austria.4 This ranged from 3.0 among women in Ireland to 1.66 among men in Austria. Interestingly, the current TFR in Ireland is only 1.6.

Overall, European males had a somewhat lower ideal family size than females. One very noticeable change between the 2006 survey and the Eurobarometer conducted in 2001 was the large increase in ideal family size among males in Germany. In 2001, German males ages 15-24 gave 1.42 children as their ideal but that increased to 2.17 in 2006—higher than females of the same age. This increase occurred across all age groups. There is no particular explanation for this change other than the fact that recent media in Germany have given attention to the country’s low male fertility aspirations.

Could the results of the Eurobarometer point to a future increase in European fertility? The “ideal” family size survey can be a poor indicator of future fertility if sufficient family support programs are not available. Overall, in the 15 countries surveyed, males gave 2.25 as their ideal while females gave 2.38. In family-friendly France, males gave 2.45 children and females 2.59 while the current TFR is 1.98. Evidence like this suggests that few couples are likely to reach their stated ideal number of children even with significant public support. This, in turn, suggests that a robust economy combined with adequate family policies could well increase birth rates, but that very significant increases (above two children on average) are unlikely.

All developed countries, regardless of their current fertility level, have one thing in common: substantial future aging. Without a very dramatic increase in fertility—and a rapid one—unprecedented aging is now assured. The only question remaining is a matter of degree. The population pyramid of Japan for 2055 in Figure 3 provides a striking illustrative example of the consequences of low fertility over the long term. This pyramid results from the middle series official projection of the Japanese government; middle series projections are often treated as “most likely” scenarios and are used for planning purposes. Alternative projections would result in a less pessimistic scenario but would still show very substantial aging.

Figure 3
Japan by Age and Sex, 2055

Japan population pyramid, 2055
Source: National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

One of the most striking features of the pyramid is the very high proportion of the “old old,” which we can define here as those age 80 years and over. In 2055, 19 percent of Japan’s population will fall in that category, including 634,000 centenarians. At the same time, the country’s population size will have shrunk from 128 million today to 90 million. The consequences for the country’s pension and health care systems are without precedent. Today, the state of Japan’s birth rate is being treated as a national crisis, but it may safely be said that it is too little, too late. If effective steps are taken, some couples would undoubtedly be motivated to have more children, but it will take much more than that to change the picture in Figure 3 in a truly significant way.

Although future changes in fertility will likely have the most noteworthy effect on changing the pyramid, past and future increases in life expectancy have had and will have their own effect, particularly in the numbers of the old old. Currently, life expectancy at birth in Japan stands at 79 years for males and 86 years for females. These are without historic precedent and continue to rise as the projected pyramid in Figure 3 also assumes. Japan’s life tables for the years 1921-1925 show that life expectancy at age 75 stood at 5.3 years for males and 6.2 years for females. In 1995, those figures were 9.8 and 12.9 years, respectively. As high as these life expectancies are, they are still increasing. In 2004, life expectancy at age 75 was 11.2 years for males and 14.9 for females. A woman who survived to age 75 could expect to live to age 90.

The developed nations set records for high levels of societal aging, but what about developing countries? Given the higher levels of fertility at present, it is obvious that aging will be less of a factor in poorer countries compared to wealthier ones. But aging will take place, and in some cases, rival levels seen in the developed world.

By 2050, the developing regions of Asia and Latin America will find that their populations age 65 and above, as a percentage of the working age population (ages 15-64), will be roughly equivalent to what is found in developed countries today. This will certainly be a new challenge but also one for which there is time to prepare.

One significant difference in the projected age structures between developed and developing countries is that fertility in developing countries is not projected to fall to some of the very low levels observed in Europe—or at least today’s projections do not make that assumption. It should be kept in mind, however, that several developing countries often referred to as “newly industrialized countries” (NICs), such as South Korea and Taiwan, saw such a decline in their TFRs that they now have the lowest fertility rates in the world.

In Africa, fertility today remains at quite a high level and, as mentioned earlier, does not appear to be declining very rapidly. Further, life expectancy remains low-barely 50 years in sub-Saharan Africa. For these reasons, Africa’s population will remain relatively young for the first half of this century and has yet to show the effects of rising life expectancy. In Asia, the outlook is much more diverse. China, which accounts for one-third of Asia’s population, today has a TFR of only 1.5, due to its government-enforced policy. In India, fertility decline has been much more gradual and remains modestly high at about 4 children per woman in some of its most populous states. Finally, Latin America’s demographics have come to resemble that of its northern neighbors, and that region can expect a somewhat similar aging pattern.

In summary, for the foreseeable next few decades at least, extreme societal aging will likely be found only in Europe and a few Asian countries. At the same time, the developing world will remain comparatively young, deepening the demographic divide. Developed countries with very low fertility face important choices if they are to avoid a collapse of pension systems and a heavy burden of caring for never-before-seen proportions of elderly citizens.

For many countries, increases in birth rates will not be sufficient because they will happen too late, and few expect such increases to be significant. This clearly implies that the acceptability of immigration as a solution will have to increase in order to solve labor force problems and increase the number of workers paying social taxes. Yet, out of all possible solutions, immigration has the least appeal. In the 2006 Eurobarometer survey, the three most commonly cited solutions to labor shortages were, in order: encouraging non-working women to participate in the labor market, encouraging part time workers to become full time, and raising the birth rate. Similarly, the three least popular solutions were the following: encouraging immigration from outside the European Union, raising the retirement age, and increasing weekly working hours.

Demographically, the world has reached an unusually challenging point in its history. Today, the prospect is for a growing developing world population and a shift of economic influence away from the developed world, the former colonial powers, and into the developing world over which they once held domain. While some aspects of this shift are clear, others are less easy to predict. Many countries will of necessity become more ethnically diverse, particularly among their younger age groups. It will be a different world.

Carl Haub is a senior demographer and Conrad Taeuber Chair of Population Information at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. The United Nations defines “more developed” countries as Europe (including Russia), North America (not including Mexico), along with Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. All other regions and countries are “less developed.” In this article, “developed” countries also comprise some emergent economies with low birth rates, such as South Korea and Taiwan and even China.
  2. Carl Haub, 2007 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2007).
  3. The total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman would bear if the rate of childbearing of a particular year remained constant throughout her lifetime.
  4. European Commission, “Childbearing Preferences and Family Issues in Europe,” Eurobarometer 65.1 (2006).

Shotgun Weddings a Sign of the Times in Japan

(July 2002) When it comes to creating a family, many young Japanese are dispensing with tradition. No longer compelled to live by their parents’ mores, many are staying single longer and conceiving children before getting married. A recent report by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare sheds light on these trends with an analysis of contemporary marriage patterns and with birth statistics for 2000.

According to the report, the median age at first marriage for women increased from 25 in 1975 to 27 in 2000, and its increase is accelerating. It took 15 years (from 1977 to 1992) for the median age to rise from 25 to 26, but it took just eight years to rise again, to 27 in 2000. Not surprisingly, with their marriages occurring later, Japanese women are having their first babies later. The average age for becoming a mother was 26 in 1975, and 28 in 2000.

Many Japanese women, though, are conceiving before marrying. Of the 569,000 first births recorded by the ministry for 2000, 26 percent were to women who had become pregnant before marrying. This figure marks a doubling from 13 percent in 1980. But the rise has been even more rapid among younger women. In 2000, 58 percent of first-born babies delivered to women ages 20 to 24 were conceived before marriage, compared with 20 percent in 1980. Among first births to teen mothers, 82 percent were conceived out of wedlock (see figure and table).

First-Born Born Babies Conceived out of Wedlock, by Mother’s Age, Japan

Source: Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

First-Born Born Babies Conceived out of Wedlock, Japan

Year First-Born Babies Conceived Before Marriage All First-Born Babies % of First-Born Babies Conceived Before Marriage
1980 83,000 660,000 13
1990 109,000 522,000 21
2000 150,000 569,000 26

Source: Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

The pregnancy-before-marriage phenomenon gained prominence when a teen pop singer, Namie Amuro, announced her marriage and three-month pregnancy in 1997. Many young actresses have followed, and as a result the mass media created the term dekichatta kekkon (loosely translated as “gotta marry”) to describe marriage due to pregnancy.

According to an article that appeared last year in the Asahi Shimbun’s weekly AERA, shotgun marriages in Japan fit into one of two categories. The first is among teens who do not use contraceptives and get pregnant. The other is people in their twenties or thirties who intentionally do not use contraceptives so as to have a reason to get married. Machiko Yanagishita, a demographer at Josai International University in Japan, believes that young Japanese often cannot find a good reason, or the right timing, to get married, probably because they have less parental or social pressure to do so. “Pregnancy would be a ‘legitimate’ reason for them to consider marriage seriously,” she said.

Haruna Kashiwase is the population information assistant at PRB.

For More Information

The summary report “Birth: Special Survey of Vital Statistics,” only available in Japanese, can be accessed at the ministry’s website: