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The Incredibly Shrinking Nation

   In 2004 Japan’s population peaked at 127.8 million people[1]. Because the fertility rate[2] in Japan has remained far below the 2.2 or so needed to maintain a population, the population has been falling steadily. If nothing changes, the population of Japan is predicted to fall to less than 90 million by the year 2055.

   While the nation anxiously wrings its hands, I have to ask what to me seems like an obvious question: is this really a problem?

   Personally, I think there are far too many people in this crowded country and population decline ought to be not only welcomed, but celebrated as one of the successes of a modern society. If you go to and have a look at the birth rates, you’ll find that Japan is fourth from the bottom, down there with Macau and Hong Kong, two of the worlds most densely populated places.[3] The countries with the highest birthrates are, not surprisingly, poor, less developed, and predominately African ones.

   Now, I realize that with population decline comes a number of seemingly knotty issues, such as how the pension system will be funded, and so on.[4] But, on the whole, I think the demographic change provides far more opportunities than it does challenges. (The same can be said about last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami. I’ll write more about this later.)

   While the population of Japan as a whole has been in decline for the past eight years, you might be surprised to learn that cities like Fukuoka have grown steadily.

   When I first moved to Fukuoka in 1993, the city had a population of 1.246 million people. Since then, the population has increased and stands at 1.443 people today. The foreign community has doubled from 12,621 in 1993 to 24,555 in 2011.

   What is the cause of this growth? One theory (my own) ascribes the increase to the comparatively large number of attractive women in the Fukuoka, the so-called Hakata Bijin (博多美人, “Hakata Beauty”), which has eager men flocking to the city in droves.[5] Others point more correctly to kasoka (過疎化), or the depopulation of towns and villages as people pull up stakes and move to the cities where there are better-paying jobs and more opportunities. 

   Out of curiosity, I looked into the demographics of Iizuka, that oft-maligned (mostly by me) city to the northwest of Fukuoka, to see how the population had changed over the years. I was surprised to see that although the city’s population was down from a high of 140,463 people in 1995, it was still higher than in the decades following the end of the war when the mines were still giving up plenty of coal and jobs abounded. I guess having a powerful politician fighting for your cause—in this case former Prime Minister Tarô Aso—does have its benefits, if not plenty of pork barrel. The city is today home to one of the campuses of Kyûkôdai (九工大, Kyûshû Institute of Technology).

   Fukuoka, though, has much more going for it, which might explain why so many people from throughout the Kyûshû-Okinawa region relocate here. That might also explain why for several years running Fukuoka has been chosen by a number of magazines, including Monocle, as one of the world’s best cities. (Personally, I think that’s going a little too far. It is a nice place, but one of the world’s best? C’mon, who ya kiddin’?)[6]


[1] Numbers vary. The Japanese language site gave the above figure. Another English language site had the population at 128.1 million in 2010.

[2] The fertility rate refers to the average number of children born to women throughout their reproductive years. The fertility rate, which was 3.65 in 1950, fell to 1.91 in 1975. It stands around 1.37 today.

[3] Japan is the 38th most densely populated country in the world.

[4] I will discuss this so-called problem in the next post.

[5] Many young women will disagree with this, claiming that the city doesn’t have many men. They’ll even argue that there are eight women for every available man. I don’t know where this statistic comes from, but I’ve heard it again and again over the years. Funny, but the two single women who first told me of this imbalance have moved to Tôkyô where—surprise, surprise—they remain single.

[6] I often joke that “Fukuoka is a nice place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit it”. There just isn’t that much for tourists to do and see. 

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