Why Is Japan's Population Declining?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

One thing I have heard about for well over a decade is that Japans population as a whole has been shrinking since the end of the 1980's. That fewer people are getting married and having less, if any, children than there parents and grandparents generation. There have been a few anime that have shown this like The Lost Village where rural populations become so depopulated they essentially become ghost towns. At the same time, I honestly cannot recall a single school anime that has shown a grade school shutting down or consolidating due to lack of students. Here in the US we have had at least two or three recessions and some urban flight from cities like Detroit over the last 30 years as well, but our population has relatively maintained a steady growth. Why has Japan never been able to recover from this peak in the 1980's?

Really, you can't? Isn't that the whole premise behind Love Live!?

Population decline is happening in quite a few countries at varying rates. While war and mass migrations play a part in many of those countries, these declines generally happen for two non-catastrophic reasons: first, that there aren't enough babies being born to offset the elderly dying off. Second, that there aren't enough people immigrating to the country to offset those elderly dying off either. Countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and Lithuania are all declining as well, and it's thought that the populations of both China and South Korea have peaked.

But Japan's something of a special case. As of its most recent census last year, the population had dropped 0.7% -- a very fast decline. Over a third of the country's population is over 60, and the working age population is now 9.7 million fewer people than it was in the 90s. There's been a lot of socioeconomic study and discussion over why so few people are having children. There are a number of favorite targets: a culture that makes women choose between having a family or a career. A lack of child care. A sex trade and media industry that makes it easier to live with otaku delights than to get a date. A generation of men that seem to have a diminished sex drive. It may be some of these things, it may be all of these things.

In macroeconomic terms, this is a disaster. Fewer people in the work force means a huge drop in the country's productivity. Fewer consumers mean fewer people buying things. A shrinking economy means recession, a diminished place in the world, and possibly economic hardship. Japan is the world's third largest economy, and it really has nowhere to go but down. That economy has been largely stagnant for the last few decades (after its fall from world dominance in the 90s), and over time Japanese politics has become increasingly preoccupied with restoring the country to some sort of glory. Unfortunately that image of glory is often the sort of nationalism that bleeds into racism and pre-WWII imperialist nostalgia, so the easy way of temporarily fixing things -- letting in a ton of immigrants -- is probably a non-starter.

Anyway, Japan's seemingly-inevitable tumble off the economic cliff in the next few decades is a constant concern for every Japanese business, especially one such as anime, which still depends heavily on the domestic market to make its money, and on domestic talent to get produced. The anime industry is trying to head this disaster off at the pass. Both the government and the major companies have invested a great amount of resources into expanding the international market, especially into China and into English speaking parts of the world. The last five years have seen an epoch-making shift in how much revenue comes in from places like Crunchyroll and Chinese streaming platforms, versus Japanese fans. I haven't seen recent numbers, but it's generally thought that overseas sales are now as important to a show's bottom line as domestic fans -- perhaps moreso.

Animation studios have also been investing heavily in new studios in other parts of Asia, training workers in an ever-increasing number of animation tasks. New techniques like cel shaded CG are also aimed at reducing the number of people needed to produce a show. This is not just a cost-cutting measure, it's a survival measure. The studios are preparing for a future in which there are far fewer Japanese people to both make anime and buy anime.

And as for the shows you mention, all this thought about what the future of Japan looks like can't help but bleed into its fiction. So often, stories are a reflection of people's thoughts and concerns at any given moment. Nobody knows what Japan or the anime it produces will look like in 20 years, but one thing is for certain: it's going to be a very strange time getting there.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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