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Watching the Hourglass: Japanese Politics in the Midst of a Disappearing Population

Original illustration by Kyla Dang

From Children of Men to The Handmaid’s Tale, contemporary culture has always had a fascination with fertility and its relationship with society. Both works of media present worlds in which mass infertility have led to social collapse and a vastly changed political landscape. However, while fiction tends to play with the idea of fertility influencing politics, the real-life case study of Japan struggles in a different manner. In Japan, politics and plummeting fertility interchangeably affect each other, pushing both down a dangerous spiral. In Japan, a dangerous birthing crisis has been exacerbated by flawed democratic processes, ineffective government policies, and an apathetic political climate.  

While Japan’s birthing crisis is widely recognized, it has only worsened in recent years. In 2021, Japan’s birth rate once again plummeted to its lowest ever since recording began in 1899. Japan’s population of around 125 million has been on the decline since 2007, and its population only continues to grow older. In fact, by 2036, one in three people are expected to be elderly. Japan’s population problems are increasingly worsened by a trend of mass urban migration, with younger generations flocking from small towns to cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Rural towns have then been handed statistical death sentences, with nearly half of Japan’s 1718 municipalities in danger of disappearing by 2040. However, trying to find the roots of such empirical statistics is a complex task in itself. 

The most significant culprit for Japan’s birthing crisis is still often placed on the shoulders of contemporary Japanese culture. Many point to the lack of interest in dating and sex amongst young urban people and generally plummeting marriage rates as serious problems. In 2021, Tokyo—the biggest destination for young people across the country—had the lowest fertility rate of Japan’s subdivisions at 1.13. This drop is often—at least partially—attributed to Japanese gender roles. Women have drastically increased their share of the workforce and altered the traditional expectations of wives of being solely responsible for childcare. However, there often isn’t enough emphasis placed on the role of politics as the catalyst for Japan’s declining population and social issues.

Interestingly, a single group—the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—has often defined Japan’s politics. Ruling Japan 63 of the 67 years since its founding, this uninterrupted rule has very much shaped the LDP’s political motivations to stay within the status quo for as long as possible. Perhaps unexpectedly, this philosophy can be seen as a root cause of Japan’s infertility. An example is the LDP’s reliance on older voters to stay in power. The traditionalist and conservative party draws much of its support from loyal elderly voters, who progressively occupy larger and larger shares of Japan’s rural subdivisions. In regards to population, a disproportionate amount of seats are allocated to rural Japanese prefectures in Parliament. This disparity continues to grow as urban prefectures grow and rural ones shrink. Thus, rural votes are worth far more than ones coming from urban districts. In return for their support, the LDP allocates large portions of government funding for rural towns despite a general lack of funding in other programs involving childcare and family. If the LDP in some ways directly benefits from Japan’s birthing crisis, why would it want to change?

This lack of change has also kept the country staunchly conservative in socioeconomic policy regardless of the country’s majority opinion. The LDP remains reluctant in protecting workers from economic instability and corporate exploitation. Labor unions have shockingly little power, and around 40 percent of the employed population are considered “irregular workers”—offered low job security and little benefits. Employment insecurity means that young people often don’t have the financial ability to care for children or even be open to dating and marriage. 

Female workers, in particular, remain one of the most excluded groups in economic protection. There has been a lack of fundamental policy confronting gender pay gaps, hiring inequality, and abysmal female representation in places of power. The LDP continues to protect policies upholding a tradition of sexism in Japan. As of 2021, the Japanese government still upholds the law that requires married couples to share the same surname—despite mass disapproval from young Japanese. Politically, more than 90 percent of LDP candidates in recent elections remain male and disproportionately senior-aged. The LDP has also only just allowed female attendees in party board meetings as of 2021—as long as they do not speak. LDP’s politics has led Japan, a developed country, to have shockingly high gender inequality. In 2021, Japan was ranked 120th out of 156 nations in gender parity by the World Economic Forum. 

While Japan’s treatment of women and young workers is extremely important, they are not all that makes the nation’s politics unique. Japan has a problem of apathy. A future of smaller workforces and a government straining to support its elderly is on the horizon for the country. Yet even in the face of pessimism and uncertainty, many Japanese have remained apathetic. In the 2017 general elections, voter turnout amounted to just around half of the total population. However, the turnout amongst voters in their 20s was even more underwhelming at 34 percent. Despite the fact that higher turnout could significantly change Japanese politics, most young urban voters have lost faith in their local institutions. 

Candidates in Japan have also proved to be as sparse as the voters. Depopulation and political inactivity has meant that many local elections go uncontested. In the 2019 elections, 30 percent of city mayoral races ran unopposed—the number rises to 45 percent for town and village roles. In some areas, there are even more placements than candidates available. Change cannot be advocated for without advocates to do so.

The roots of Japan’s birthing crisis are as complex as its politics. Flawed democratic systems have caused the LDP to increasingly depend on elderly voters for power and disregard the needs of young people. Also, simply put, politics in Japan don’t support women and workers enough. This remains unconfronted due to relative political apathy. Japan, obviously, is nowhere near the level of modern dystopian films about mass infertility. However, there is the very real futuristic chance of a vastly depopulated Japan and all the problems that accompany that possibility. 

To change, Japan needs to target its political atmosphere rather than just its social issues. The government needs to reevaluate its systems of democracy, the LDP still needs to create serious structural changes to its platforms, and the general populace needs to revitalize its relationship with politics. Only then will Japan be able to stay optimistically on track with reality. After all, dystopian fiction about low fertility is fiction for a reason.