Sunday was the first anniversary of the 9.0 earthquake off the east coast of Japan that produced the 45-foot-high tidal wave that hit Fukushima Prefecture.
Twenty thousand perished. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes when a nuclear plant swept by the tsunami exploded, spewing radiation for miles.
Only two of Japan’s 54 nuclear plants are now operating. The rest have shut down for inspections. Many may never start up again.
In loss of life, that earthquake-tsunami was seven times as lethal as 9/11. But recovery from that greatest disaster in decades is not the gravest problem facing Japan.
The gravest problem facing the Land of the Rising Sun is that it is dying. The sun that set on the Japanese Empire in 1945 has begun to set on the Japanese nation.
A week before the anniversary of 3/11, buried in a story about Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s effort to rally support for a doubling of the 5 percent consumption tax, to preserve Japan’s social security system, was this startling statement:
“We’re faced with an aging society and a declining birth rate unprecedented in the history of mankind.”
What makes this admission remarkable is that the Japanese are not given to hyperbole, and the prime minister’s statement is rooted in numbers that may fairly be called a demography of death.
Deep inside the story on the Noda tax proposal was this item: “By 2055, according to government data, 40 percent of the country’s population will be 65 or older. Just 8 percent will be younger than 15.”
If accurate, these numbers reveal a deepening of the crisis of demography facing Japan since the population projections of the United Nations came out in 2008.
According to those U.N. figures, where Japan’s population would reach 127 million in 2010, the number of Japanese will shrink to just above 101 million by 2050. Every year between now and 2050, the number of deaths over births in Japan will average two-thirds of a million, with the population shrinkage accelerating each decade.
The median age of a Japanese, 22 years old in 1950, reached 45 in 2010 and will exceed 55 by midcentury. The oldest people on the planet are getting older.
What kind of future can there be for a nation, even one with the high quality human capital of Japan, when there are two Japanese 65 years old or older for every Japanese 24 years of age or younger?
When Japan became the world’s No. 2 economy in 1960, seizing the crown from Germany to hold for 40 years, Japanese 24 years old and younger outnumbered the population 65 or older eight to one.
Japan’s fertility rate, the number of births per woman, has been below zero population growth for 40 years and has plunged to where Japanese woman are having only two-thirds of the children needed to replace the present population.
Not only has the birth rate per woman fallen, the percentage of Japanese women aged 15-49 — 56 percent in the 1960s — is expected to plunge to 31 by midcentury.
Every new Japanese generation is one-third to one-half smaller than the one that came before. Japan’s high school graduation class has fallen by more than one-third in just 30 years.
Nippon seems to be collectively committing national hara-kiri.
How did this come about? The means are not in dispute.
When millions of Japanese soldiers returned from their dead empire to start families, there was a population explosion. Under the U.S. occupation, Tokyo swiftly legalized abortion, and the nation embraced birth control. Japan did so before Europe, but Europe followed. Now all face demographic death, with Japan leading the way.
This has already begun to affect her national economy.
Japan’s growth rate in the 1960s was 10 percent a year. In the 1970s, it was 5 percent a year. In the 1980s, it was 4 percent — still a healthy growth rate for a mature economy.
But in the 1990s, the “lost decade,” Japan’s growth fell to 1.8 percent a year, and that anemic rate has continued into this century.
Japan’s expenditures during the lost decade to reignite the fire sent the national debt soaring above 200 percent of gross domestic product, eclipsing the debt-to-GDP ratios of Greece and Italy today.
In 2011, for the first time in 30 years, Japan ran a trade deficit. January’s figure, $19 billion for the month, was a record.
The abandonment of nuclear power has forced Japan to substitute imported coal and liquified natural gas to produce her energy.
During the decade of “Japan, Inc.,” in 1988, Nippon boasted of being home to eight of the world’s top 20 corporations in terms of capital investment. Now she is home to none, and only six of the top 100.
Yet when Prime Minister Noda said what was happening in Japan was “unprecedented in the history of mankind,” he was mistaken.
This also happened to the greatest empire of them all long ago.