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Japan’s Shrinking Population

Elderly People Exercise Early Morning In Park
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Japan is the world’s senior citizen. Decades of improving life expectancy and falling birth rates have produced a rapidly aging and shrinking population. The demographic shift is threatening the existence of rural communities, contributing to a ballooning public debt and starving the economy of labor. In Tokyo, there are twice as many job vacancies as applicants. The government is scrambling to cope, with policies aimed at boosting fertility and support for working mothers, a push for greater job automation and a softening of the nation’s traditional aversion to immigration.

Japan’s population of 127 million is forecast to shrink by about one-third in the next five decades. The proportion of over-64-year-olds — currently about a quarter — is expected to reach 38 percent in that time frame, intensifying the financial and care burden on the working-age population. In a country where over-50s are commonplace on building sites, 86 percent of employers struggled to fill vacancies last year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who aims to keep the population above 100 million, has introduced policies to curb excessive working hours and provide more care facilities for children and the aged. But progress has been slow, and moms and pensioners alone cannot plug the labor shortfall. Other remedies include Abe’s “robot revolution,” a plan to quadruple the size of the robotics industry by encouraging automation in everything from rubber factories to care for the elderly. The prime minister, sensitive to the public’s reluctance to open the doors to foreigners, has relaxed restrictions in a piecemeal fashion while avoiding the term “immigration.” His measures since taking office in 2012 have contributed to an increase in the number of overseas workers to more than a million, double that in 2008. A so-called internship program attracted cheap labor from Asia to farms and factories, and foreigners can now become housekeepers or tourist guides in special deregulated zones.