Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Japan’s Population Falls by Most Since Records Began in 1968

  • Number of foreigners rose by 5.4 percent to 2.17 million
  • Record number of people living in nation’s urban centers

The Japanese population of Japan, the world’s fastest-aging major nation, fell the most on record as the number of deaths outweighed those born in the country.

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The number of Japanese living in the country fell for a seventh straight year, down by 271,834 to 125.9 million people as of Jan 1., according to data released Wednesday. The figures, first compiled in 1968, showed those living in one of the three biggest urban areas (around Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kansai) rose to a record, while the number of foreigners living in the immigration-averse nation rose, mostly in large cities.

Other key figures:

  • No. of foreigners rose 111,562 to 2.17 million (up 5.4 percent)
  • 1.30 million Japanese died during the year, more than the 1.01 million births
  • No. of Japanese living in the three biggest urban centers was a record 64.5 million (51.23 percent of the total); 1.54 million foreigners were also resident there, which is more than 70 percent of the total.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set out an aim of stopping the total population from falling below 100 million, but a failure to boost the nation’s birthrate could see its labor force collapse by more than 40 percent by 2060, according to a projection by a government panel.

A smaller population runs counter to Abe’s aim of increasing the workforce by a million people -- and boosting gross domestic product by about 20 percent -- over the next four years, though there are glimmers of hope such as increased female workforce participation. Despite the increase in foreigners, mass immigration is still off the table.

The number of foreigners coming to Japan has been steadily increasing since the 1990s as more foreign students, workers and families come to the country, said Yu Korekawa, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo. "The foreign population fell off after the financial crisis and 2011 earthquake, but is now rising again."

The population of 40 of the nation’s 47 prefectures fell, with the biggest drop coming on the northern island of Hokkaido. The increases were mainly in and around Tokyo, indicating that many young families are moving to the capital.

The rush to the big cities is bad news for Abe’s efforts to bolster the faltering birthrate, which he repeatedly referred to in his campaign for last Sunday’s upper house election. Tokyo’s women, on average, have fewer children in their lifetimes than contemporaries elsewhere in the nation. It also places strains on public services in metropolitan areas, while some rural communities are in danger of extinction.

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