Jennifer Robertson, Response to Musk’s “end of Japan” scenario, 10 May 2022

(Longer version of what was quoted in Business Insider

Elon Musk’s tweet on May 7 ( predicting that “Japan will cease to exist” if the country’s birthrate does not rise above the mortality rate is an example of the fusion of cherry-picked factoids and context-free hyperbole that already infects a high percentage of social media. Shockingly, the majority of responders to Musk’s tweet took it at face value and did not question the veracity of his claim.

It is true that the birthrate and population have declined in Japan and that the birthrate has fallen below the mortality rate since 2006. But the full story is much more complex than the simple equation of population decline and a country ceasing to exist. Read on.

In 2021 there were about 7.1 births per 1,000 persons (as opposed to 9.2 in 2000). This scenario is not unique to Japan and is shared by Italy, S. Korea, Greece, and Puerto Rico. The Japanese (especially Okinawans) are among the longest-lived people on the planet; the life expectancy for females is 87.7 years, and 81.5 years for males. Currently, the population of 125.8 million is, demographically, one of the oldest among postindustrial countries, as an average of 28.4% is over 65 years old although in rural towns this percentage may be as high as 90%. Most of the population is concentrated on the main island of Honshu between Osaka and Tokyo. The relation between the aging population and shrinking labor force is also more complex than a zero-sum equation.

Until the 1970s, the mandatory requirement age was 55 for salaried male workers. In contrast, hourly female workers were (and are still) pressured to marry and resign by their late 20s. With the rising age of life expectancy, the retirement age of male workers has been extended to 65 and legislation is pending to raise it further to 70 or 75 to ease the increasing burden of corporate and government pensions, in addition to retaining capable workers. Of course, simply employing more women across the board would help to replenish the workforce. Recently, Japanese women have begun to assume leading roles in the fishing and farming sectors.

Japan remains the lowest ranking — 120th of 156 nation-states surveyed — post-industrial country in terms of sex-gender parity in the workforce. Today, about 44% of workers are females, but only about 9% are in managerial positions, despite former PM Abe Shinzō’s (2006-07; 2012-20) “womenomics” initiative to boost that figure to 30%.

Following WW2, the Japanese government has pursued automation over replacement migration, and Japan is accurately characterized as an immigrant- and refugee-unfriendly country. In 2007, during his first administration, former PM Abe envisioned Japan as a fully robotized society by 2025, with a robotic workforce shoring up a declining labor force. Around 50% of automotive factories are robotized, and Japan is the leading maker and exporter (45%) of robots globally. Robotics in general is viewed as an industry that will lift the economy out of its 20-year recession. Japan’s dominance in the global market for robots (and automobiles) remains intact, and, encourage by former PM Abe, Japanese robots and robotic technologies are also being developed for lucrative global weapons economy, currently dominated by the USA and France.

In Japan, as in most post-industrial countries, human workers remain far more numerous and versatile than robots, especially in construction and manufacturing jobs. Apart from industrial robots, almost all robots available to civilian consumers are appliances, such as robotic rice cookers, commodes, and vacuum cleaners. To increase the ranks of laborers in construction, manufacturing, and dangerous work (like nuclear reactor repairs and radioactive waste disposal), new visa and internship programs have been quickly established to recruit “guest workers” from (mostly) other Asian countries. Their numbers have more than doubled in a decade to about 1.7 million, and there are likely many thousands more employed “under the radar.”

There are heated debates ongoing in Japan for the past two decades as to the value of a smaller population with a more fully equitable sex-gender division of labor, versus a larger population per se. Because of the negative perceptions of Japan’s 20th century history of imperialist aggression abroad and repressive martial law at home, which included aggressive pro-natalist policies (e.g., no access to contraceptives), successive post-war administrations cannot exercise control over the reproductive choices of citizens.

Curiously, however, politicians remain tone-deaf to the reasons why women (and many men) are choosing not to marry and, if married, choosing not to have children. Heteronormative marriage remains the only sanctioned context in Japan for childbearing and child-raising. Single parents by choice are an anomaly in Japan and face discrimination. Moreover, apart from the sheer expense of raising children, it remains the case that for women especially, to marry is tantamount to giving up a career and an independent income. The dearth of day care facilities further represses a willingness to bear and raise children. It seems ironic that former PM Abe, who is married but childless, and conservative politicians like him, would imagine robot housekeepers as a more feasible solution to the falling marriage rate and consequently falling birthrate, than measures to significantly increase the number of day-care centers and to mandate sex-gender parity in public and private sector workplaces.

Regarding Musk’s careless tweet about Japan, it is worth noting that at the height of Japan’s vast transpacific empire (1879-1945), the population of Japan was about 75 million, 60% of the present population! Today, the main demographic issue is less the size of the population per se and more a matter of the aging of the population, along with restrictive immigration policies, sex-gender inequities, and the restriction of sanctioned childbirth to heteronormative marriages. That said, the Japanese have a socio-cultural history of pragmatism. For example, if a couple’s own (biological) offspring are deficient in ways making them unsuitable heirs, more capable children are adopted instead. In 2011, for example, 81,000 adoptions of adults were transacted by married couples to ensure the stable succession of their businesses. Support for single parents and LGBTQ+ couples would likely help raise the birthrate provided that day care facilities and family welfare support are prioritized for all households. Japanese pragmatism needs to become more proactively pragmatic!