It is not hard to spot the grey hairs among the late-morning shoppers on Jizo-dori. Their owners have come to buy discount underwear and colourful blouses, have lunch with friends in retro cafes and, if they are over 60, have their nails done at huge discounts.
At regular intervals along the street, signs indicate the presence of defibrillators; and at Koganji temple, people pause to waft “cure-all” smoke from smouldering incense sticks over their aches and pains.
The Tokyo neighbourhood of Sugamo has long been a mecca for members of the capital’s older population. But Japan’s skewed demographics indicate that, in the decades to come, it will not be alone. It is a glimpse into a future that is older and less populated, battling the consequences of a depleted workforce and shrinking economy.
The population of the world’s third-biggest economy, where adult incontinence pads outsell babies’ nappies, has been in decline for several years and suffered a record fall of 644,000 in 2020-21, according to government data. It is expected to plummet from its current 125 million to an estimated 88 million in 2065 – a 30% decline in 45 years.
While the number of over-65s continues to grow – they now account for more than 28% of the population – the birthrate remains stubbornly low. A Japanese woman can expect to have an average of 1.3 children during her lifetime – well below the 2.1 needed to sustain the current population size.
Official encouragement to have more children – backed by modest financial inducements – and warnings that long-term population decline will damage the health of the economy, have had little effect.
In 2021, the number of births totalled 811,604, the lowest since records were first kept in 1899, a faster decline than projected by demographic experts. By contrast, the number of centenarians stands at more than 90,500 – compared with only 153 in 1963.
Like their counterparts in neighbouring South Korea, Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry and have children – deterred by the financial pressures and traditional gender roles that force many to give up work as soon as they become pregnant and shoulder the burden of housework and childcare duties.
“I used to think I would be married by 25 and a mother by 27,” said Nao Iwai, a university student in Tokyo. “But when I look at my eldest sister, who has a two-year-old girl, I’m afraid to have children.
“When you have a child in Japan, the husband keeps working but the mother is expected to quit her job and look after the children. I just feel that it’s hard to raise children, financially, mentally and physically. The government says it will provide better support for families with young children, but I don’t have much faith in politicians.”
The low fertility rate is partly a symptom of the advances Japanese women have made in recent years, says Yuka Minagawa, an associate professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Better educational attainment and a rise in the number of women in the workplace mean they are marrying, and having children, significantly later than their mothers and grandmothers.
“A possible factor for the reluctance of Japanese women to marry is the increasing costs of marriage,” Naohiro Yashiro a professor at Showa Women’s University, wrote in a recent essay for the East Asia Forum website.
“With higher education, more young women have similar wages to men, so their average search period for spouses is longer. Currently, the average age of first marriage for women is 29 years, well beyond the 25 years in the 1980s – when most women were only high school graduates.”
‘It is hard to see the fertility rate increasing’
While the government last month announced increases in financial pre- and post-natal support, it has yet to address long-term pressures on the birthrate, such as the cost of pre-school child care and compulsory education, and the rising cost of living.
“Japan is not a place where just anyone can have one or more children,” said Minagawa, adding that many mothers struggled to juggle work and family life. “Women continue to take on the lion’s share of household chores, even if they also work outside the home.”
Less than 14% of new fathers took paternity leave in Japan last year – well below the government’s target of 30% by 2025. A quarter took fewer than five days off, according to the health ministry.
“The government is encouraging men to take paternity leave – and the rate is increasing – but traditional ideas about the division of labour are still very strong,” said Machiko Osawa, a professor at Japan Women’s University who has served on a government committee for work-life balance.
“And long working hours prevent men from taking time off to be with their newborn children. All of the child-rearing responsibility is being shouldered by women, and as long as this continues, it is hard to see the fertility rate increasing.”
In South Korea ‘no one is taking responsibility’
A similar story is unfolding in South Korea, which has the world’s lowest fertility rate and a rapidly ageing population. Concerns are growing about the strain on the economy and the pension system, which may become depleted in the coming decades.
The population shrank for the first time on record in 2021, and is projected to fall further, from the current 52 million to 38 million, by 2070. The country’s fertility rate last year was 0.81, the lowest in the world.
Local governments have implemented programmes to encourage people to have children. They are given cash handouts, help with fertility treatment, support for medical expenses, and loans.
But Jung Chang-lyul, an associate professor of social welfare at Dankook University, says cash incentives are “completely useless”.
“While the low birthrate problem may seem important on the surface, the real issue is that no one is taking responsibility,” Jung said, referring to the high cost of raising a child and real estate prices – not least in Seoul, where the average price of an apartment in has doubled in recent years.
“In a society where children start receiving private education as early as age two or three, and their achievements or wages are determined by their parents’ wealth and the cost of their private education, those who are not financially well off think that giving birth to a child is like committing a sin.”
Choi Jung-hee, a newlywed office worker, has no plans to have children. “My life and my husband’s come first,” she said. “We want a fun life together, and while people say having a child could bring us happiness, it would also mean having to give up a lot.”
Lifestyles are changing. For the first time, the proportion of single-person households has surpassed 40%. Last year, the number of marriages reached an all-time low of 193,000, in a country where half the population now believes that marriage is not a necessity. Some, particularly women, prioritise personal freedom and wilfully rule out marriage entirely.
Despite changing attitudes, women have traditionally been expected to give up their jobs and become full-time housewives. South Korea currently has the OECD’s worst gender pay gap. The country has been ranked at the bottom of the Economist’s glass ceiling index, which measures where women have the best and worst chances of equal treatment at work, for the 10th consecutive year.
Traditional attitudes also persist. The government recently reversed a policy that sought to extend the legal definition of family to include those not bound by marriage. Influential conservative Christian lobby groups blame the country’s low birthrate on homosexuality, and oppose anything less than the traditional family unit.
Ultimately, addressing people’s wellbeing is one of the most important things when it comes to tackling the low birthrate problem, said Jung. Among OECD countries, South Korea has one of the lowest levels of life satisfaction, and the highest suicide rate.
“People will start having children only when we create a society in which children grow up to be happier than us.”
While Japan and South Korea have reluctantly opened the door to some foreign workers, there are few signs that either country is willing to embrace mass immigration to help defuse their ticking demographic time bombs.
“An inflow of an immigrant population with high fertility rates would help address the birthrate issue,” Minagawa said. “But that is unlikely to happen in Japan in the near future.
“Instead, it needs to find a way to encourage women to have multiple children to sustain the current population size. But that would require a fundamental change in the structure of Japanese society, starting with gender equality in the home and workplace.”