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Regionalism Revitalizes Japan How reducing regional disparity can be part of the solution to demographic challenges.The world’s population is poised to essentially stop growing by the end of this century. UN projections indicate that annual population growth will slow to just 0.1% in the last five years of the century, from 1.2% in the first five years. Japan, where the population has been declining since peaking in 2008, is the world’s pioneer in population decline and aging. So its experience will be instructive for other nations. Especially evident from that experience is the importance of shaping an equitable distribution of opportunity across regions and age groups.

Leveraging Creativity through a Sound Demographic Profile

Where populations will age and shrink (psst: nearly everywhere)

Source:“World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision,” medium-variant projections (Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations)
Source:“World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision,”medium-variant projections (UN Population Division)

Only in Africa will populations be growing significantly at the turn of the century, according to the UN projections. The number of Europeans will begin declining in the 2020s and the numbers of Asians and Latin Americans early in the second half of the century. Immigration could help keep North America and Oceania out of negative-growth territory, but just barely.

We are getting older, meanwhile, as we begin to grow fewer. The UN projects a threefold increase from 2010 to 2050 in the world’s over-65 population, to 1.5 billion. And our median age is headed toward a projected 41 years at the turn of the century, from 29 in 2013.

All of this is a familiar story to the Japanese. In 2013, their median age had reached 45.9 years, and one in four of them was older than 65. Both of those figures were higher than in any other nation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is deploying a diversity of innovative initiatives to ameliorate the socioeconomic impact of Japan’s challenging demographics.

Demographics' geographical dimension

Population shrinkage and graying are causes and also results of demographic differentials between regions. Urban centers draw people—especially young people—away from nonurban areas. Childbearing rates for women of the same age brackets tend to be lower in big cities than in the countryside or in provincial towns and cities. So urbanization can undermine nations’ fertility. The migration of young people, meanwhile, raises the average age in nonurban regions and lowers it in metropolitan regions.

Urban-nonurban differentials are especially pronounced in Japan. Greater Tokyo, including the capital’s neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama, alone accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s population. So measures for revitalizing nonmetropolitan regions are the centerpiece of the Abe government’s program for tackling Japan’s demographic challenges. Those measures include initiatives for increasing the competitiveness of Japanese agriculture, incentives and deregulation in support of regional entrepreneurship, the establishment of a nationwide network of village hubs to serve localities with medical care and with other crucial services, and investment in transport infrastructure for supporting stepped-up interchange among regional centers.

Luring people from Japan's metropolises to the countryside is a core emphasis in the Abe government’s program for minimizing population decline

Toward a more-procreative Japan

Japan’s government is staging a campaign of unprecedented tenacity to change the course of the nation’s demographics. In the absence of policy intervention, Japan’s population will shrink to 87 million in 2060, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. The Abe government is moving aggressively, however, to prevent that decline and to ensure that Japan retains a population of at least 100 million in 2060.

Highlighting the government’s demographic campaign are bold measures for raising Japan’s total fertility rate. That rate was 1.43 in 2013, well below the population-maintenance level of 2.04. Japanese government planners calculate that a rise in the fertility rate to 1.60 by 2020, to 1.80 by 2030, and to 2.07 by 2040 would keep the population larger than 100 million in 2060. Testifying to the viability of that goal are government survey findings that Japanese couples desire more children than they are having. Those findings suggest that shaping a social framework more amenable to bearing and raising children would engender a higher fertility rate.

The Abe government is working systematically to shape a procreation-friendly social framework. An initiative well under way will increase the capacity of Japan’s childcare centers by 400,000 children by March 2018. And the government is prodding business to enable women to bear and raise children without compromising their careers.

Fostering economic activity outside Japan’s megalopolises, meanwhile, will also encourage procreation. Here again, survey findings inspire optimism. A lot of Japan’s big-city dwellers report that they would prefer to live in a less-urban setting if work were available. That finding bodes well for the potential of the Abe government’s regional development initiatives to lure more Japanese to higher-fertility environs.

Leveraging Creativity through a Sound Demographic Profile

Shinjiro Koizumi Parliamentary Secretary Cabinet Office of Japan

Spearheading the Abe government’s initiatives for promoting regional development outside Japan’s big cities is Shinjiro Koizumi. A member of Japan’s lower house of parliament, Koizumi handles his regional development responsibilities as a parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet Office. The youthful parliamentarian evokes a passionate purposefulness in articulating the task at hand.

“My generation,” declares the 33-year-old Koizumi, “has inherited the challenge of a shrinking and aging population. Our job is to tackle that challenge head on. Our predecessors in the Meiji period and in the postwar era built and rebuilt a modern nation by importing Western expertise and technology. But no nation has ever experienced the kind of population shrinkage and aging that are occurring in Japan. So we have no one to turn to for guidance this time around. In our nation building for the 21st century, we need to blaze our own trail.”

Koizumi emphasizes the importance regional development in coping with Japan’s demographic challenges. He has taken a strong personal interest in several projects that are under way at off-the-beaten-track sites across Japan. One of those projects consists of developing satellite offices in the Tokushima Prefecture village of Kamiyamacho. The satellite offices create web content and conduct other digital work for Tokyo-based companies. They have attracted several information technology professionals who want to do leading-edge work but want to live with their families in a rural environment.

Bootstrapping sustainability

“The project leader’s stroke of genius,” says Koizumi of the Kamiyamacho project, “was the notion of ‘creative depopulation.’ He realized that overall population decline is unavoidable over the long term. But he set out to shape a demographic profile that would engender lasting vitality for the village: young professionals, for example, and people to serve them, such as two who have opened a bakery and a French restaurant.”

Koizumi also cites a project in Okayama Prefecture (photo, left) for producing cross-laminated timber—a strong-as-steel building material—from formerly underused forest resources. And he is just getting started. Off his tongue rolls a list of successful projects in Iwate, in Shimane, in Hiroshima, and in other prefectures. Common to all the diverse projects is a reluctance to accept government money and a bootstrapping determination to place projects on a self-financing basis.

“We’re looking for development,” concludes Koizumi, “that will keep attracting people 10 years, 100 years down the line. Sustainability is our guiding principle for our nation building for the 21st century.”