Category Archives: Demographics

Spike: The weekend wrap

[Welcome to a new, occasional Spike feature, inspired by links kindly sent by readers that weren’t getting a sufficient airing, as well as by the miscellany of articles, graphs, book excerpts, and academic papers that I run across that don’t fit neatly into the mosaic of a regular Spike piece. I’ll try and keep the writing breezy and newsy, so as to be able to complete it over a glass of wine—or just conceivably two—on a weekend evening.]

Everyone, including me, seems to be an amateur demographer these days. It behooves us amateurs to occasionally listen to the professionals, and one such is Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the formidably right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI). There are two sides to Dr. Eberstadt: the first is the uncontentious descriptive demographer with a powerful turn of phrase. He casts an unsparing eye over Japanese demography in his most recent piece, Japan Shrinks, in the spring 2012 edition of The Wilson Quarterly (link here, reading time approximately 15 minutes). Much of what he says is familiar enough territory to regular readers of Spike, but it’s always refreshing to have the demographic picture painted so forcefully and accurately. It’s also good to be reminded that Japan, of course, is not alone in being at the apex of a momentous demographic transition and that Germany, indeed, arrived there earlier: interestingly, the German expression for the phenomenon, schrumpfende Gesellschaft, or shrinking society, has a close parallel in Japanese, chijimu Nihon, or shrinking Japan, the title of a recent series of NHK programs on the implications of population aging and decline, although the phase is not yet in very common currency, perhaps because of widespread denial and perhaps because, unless you live on the furthest flung fringes, the shrinkage is not yet obvious. Dr. Eberstadt also throws out the odd intriguing comment that calls for further research, such as the observation that there is a “near perfect correlation between the demise of arranged marriage in Japan and the decline in postwar Japanese fertility”.

Japan’s demographic issues pale in comparison with those of Russia, and for a better understanding of those, I highly recommend Dr. Eberstadt’s 2011 article in Foreign Affairs, The Dying Bear: Russia’s Demographic Disaster (link here, approximately 30 minutes). Here’s a taster:

By various measures, Russia’s demographic indicators resemble those in many of the world’s poorest and least developed societies. In 2009, overall life expectancy at age 15 was estimated to be lower in Russia than in Bangladesh, East Timor, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger, and Yemen; even worse, Russia’s adult male life expectancy was estimated to be lower than Sudan’s, Rwanda’s, and even AIDS-ravaged Botswana’s. … The country’s fateful leap backward in health and survival prospects is due to an explosion in deaths from cardiovascular disease and what epidemiologists call “external causes,” such as poisoning, injury, suicide, homicide, traffic fatalities, and other violent accidents. Deaths from cardiovascular disease and injuries account for the overwhelming majority of Russia’s spike in mortality levels and for nearly the entire gap separating Russia’s mortality levels from those of Western countries. At the moment, death rates from cardiovascular disease are more than three times as high in Russia as in Western Europe, and Russian death rates from injury and violence have been stratospheric, on par with those in African post-conflict societies such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Is there an elite on earth more cravenly corrupt and more openly contemptuous of its subjects than the Russian oligarchy?

The other side of Dr. Eberstadt is the prescriptive, rather than the descriptive, demographer, the opponent of Al Gore and other neo-Malthusian proponents of population stabilization—whom he damns as the “old anti-natalist crowd”—the self-appointed flayer of supposed shibboleths about the determinants of fertility rates and other population nostrums such as “overcrowding”, on display best in his 2002 AEI essay Population Sense and Nonsense (link here, approximately 20 minutes). I happen not to share his sunny demographic optimism, but it’s always constructive to read the well-rehearsed views of an adversary, even when you can drive a coach-and-horses through their lacunae, and also to be reminded of the root cause of the 20th century global population explosion: it was “not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits—rather, it was because they finally stopped dying like flies.”

Remaining on demographic turf, my chart of the week is below (click on it for a clearer resolution). It shows nothing more—or less—than the Japanese total fertility rate by prefecture at selected intervals from 1925 to 2010. For what is merely a collection of 765 numbers ranging from 6.47 (Aomori, 1925) to exactly 1.00 (Tokyo, 2005) in a grid, this chart provides the flab-bellied armchair demographer with a feast of fascination and speculation.

Start at the very bottom row, which is the nationwide figure, and note that the fertility rate has been rising off the 2005 low. Memo to self: remember to haul out the BS detector every time I hear someone talking about Japan’s “falling birthrate and aging society”—they are either ignorant, lazy, or deliberately trying to mislead.

Moving up a row: Okinawa. Why is it such a perennial fertility outsider, going from having the second lowest fertility rate in 1925 to the highest fertility rate for every single survey year from 1970 to 2010? Is this somehow a legacy of the 1945-1972 US occupation?

Moving up to the top seven rows, which show Hokkaido and the six prefectures of Tohoku, why is the 2010 fertility rate so generally low, with Hokkaido, Miyagi, and Akita being three of only four rural prefectures with rates below 1.30 (the other is Nara), why has their bounce off the 2005 low been so weak (indeed, it hasn’t occurred at all in Akita and Yamagata, where the fertility rates have continued to decline, the only prefectures aside from Yamanashi for which this is true), and what are the implications for post-earthquake recovery?

And finally, note that the prefectures with the highest fertility rates (over 1.6) are all in Kyushu (Miyazaki, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima), and that of the 13 prefectures with fertility rates over 1.5, all but two (Fukui and Fukushima—all those once stable nuclear power industry jobs?)—are in the west of Japan, which all things being equal, would suggest a barely perceptible but relentless shift in the population center south and west, as is occurring in the US.

Finally on the demographic theme, another chart, this one home-made. It occurred to me, rootling through the data last week, that the population tipping-point was creeping ever closer to the capital, so I ran for myself the numbers on the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, the shutoken, for which I used the 2005 and 2010 census data and the April 2012 population estimates (suikei jinko) that are compiled, I believe, by each and every municipality, based on the census and simply adding or subtracting births, deaths, in-migrants, and out-migrants (demography, although important, is not by any means rocket science…) As for accuracy, we can be sure that next to all births are registered and that all deaths—apart from the odd mummified centenarian whose avaricious relatives want to continue claiming the welfare benefits of the deceased—are registered. Some inaccuracy may result from underreporting of changes of domicile, however, so a measure of caution is warranted. Nevertheless, the results speak of a momentous change afoot.

October   2005 October   2010 April   2012  %   chg
Yamanashi 884,515 862,772 852,855 -1.15%
Gunma 2,024,135 2,008,170 1,994,309 -0.70%
Tochigi 2,016,631 2,007,014 1,993,283 -0.69%
Ibaraki 2,975,167 2,968,865 2,945,505 -0.79%
Saitama 7,054,243 7,194,957 7,204,353 +0.01%
Chiba 6,056,462 6,217,119 6,195,643 -0.34%
Kanagawa 8,791,597 9,049,500 9,052,730 +0.00%
Tokyo 12,576,601 13,161,751 13,182,509 +0.01%
TOTAL 42,379,351 43,470,148 43,421,187 -0.01%

The real surprises here are Kanagawa (Yokohama and its hinterland) and Tokyo itself, whose populations were not projected to peak until 2015 and 2020, respectively, and it may be that we are still a few years away from the Great Stall. It may equally well be, though, that the last six months or so has seen a definitive end to the thousand years of expansion in which an anonymous fishing village was plucked from obscurity to become the largest city in the world by the early 18th century and again, after World War II, the largest megalopolis and the most intense concentration of wealth the world has ever seen, with an economy twice the size that of the nearest challenger, New York, an economy that would, were it independent, give it a GDP about the size of Russia.

I learned a neat little demographic trick this week: how to use the Rule of Seventy (the natural log of two is 0.693) to calculate a population’s halving (or doubling) time. For Yamanashi, the most rural and most demographically challenged prefecture in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, for instance, the maths looks like this: 69.3 ÷ ([-1.15% ÷ 18] x 12) = 90.4 years. For Akita, the prefecture where population decline set in first (1980), has been greatest (-15.1% from peak to date), and is steepest, the time to halve is currently 58.6 years. (Note that in the case of a population with rising net mortality, time to halve in years is not static, but contracts as the decline accelerates).

Well, that was rather dry, wasn’t it? Time for lashings of humor and violence. Here’s an assortment of titles of self-help books inspired by the Japanese mob: Yakuza Techniques for Overcoming Business Hurdles through Successful Speaking and Listening (2006), Modern Yakuza Tips for Making Cash (2008), Choosing your Man: Yakuza Tips for Telling a Winner from a Loser (2008), Management Skills of the Yamaguchi-gumi (2005), and my personal favorite, Yakuza Techniques for Dealing with Complaints (2010). Initially, I had a hard time believing these books really exist, but a moment at was enough to convince—and there are dozens of other self-help books out there with similar titles. Which goes to underscore what has been long known—that there are too many books being published, and too many self-help books in particular.

These come from a nothing short of brilliant survey of the current state of the Japanese mob by Andrew Rankin, a PhD student (but with a 20-year stint in Japan behind him) at my alma mater, Cambridge University, whom I recently contacted having been misled by the Internet rumor-mill into believing he was writing a new biography of Yukio Mishima. He’s not, but the translation of a Mishima biography penned by Tokyo Deputy Governor Naoki Inose is due out in November.

The two-part yakuza survey is here and here but needs a solid hour of concentrated attention. If you don’t have the time to spare, here’s the summary: less money, less power, less violence, more ingenuity, staying parochial, getting older, going deeper underground, fewer tattoos, and lots fewer missing pinkies. Like Mr. Rankin, I can’t help but feel the yakuza crackdown of the last decade or so is potentially counterproductive: would you rather have organized crime—and the Japanese mob has historically been supremely organized—or disorganized crime? I’d go one wholly speculative step further, too, and say that the crackdown is but one more manifestation of an incipiently totalitarian state that brooks no serious opposition to its crushingly rigid and drearily passé petit-bourgeois ideology.

Causing a bit of a media brouhaha in recent days has been a report, Global Japan: 2050 Simulations and Strategies, by the 21st Century Public Policy Institute, a public policy think-tank (dread words!) affiliated with Keidanren, which for those not in the know is a pro-business lobbying organization akin to the Confederation of British Industry in the UK or the Chamber of Commerce in the US. The link is here (approximately 10 minutes). The eccentric English (“if perchance financial collapse does occur”) suggests that, for all of the hot air about internationalization and globalization, no native speaker had a hand in its production. The two key takeaways are that the debt-to-nominal GDP ratio sails blithely past 300% in the early 2030s and on up to around 600% by 2050, even if the consumption tax is doubled to 10% by fiscal 2015, and that under all four scenarios, even the rosiest, GDP turns negative by the decade from 2031 to 2040. That rosiest scenario sees women’s labor force participation rate rise to rank on par with that of Sweden, and indeed, the very first (nebulous) policy recommendation is: “Promote labor participation of women and the elderly, and strengthen the workforce from young to senior workers.”

Keidanren may be practicing what it preaches about labor force participation by the elderly—shaggily-eyebrowed Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura is a sprightly 74—but as for labor force participation by women—at least in roles less menial than pourers of tea and makers of photocopies—not so much. Of the 18 chairs and vice-chairs, how many are women? Ah yes, none. Of the 17 chairs and vice-chairs of the Board of Councillors? None again. Among the 108—108!—chairs of policy committees, we might hope to find at least a token woman, right? Wrong. As a wag once quipped of Japanese corporate boards, the higher echelons of Keidanren make a Brigham Young University graduation photo look like a Benetton ad…

That alone is enough, I think, to cast doubt on the rosiest scenario and reason to expect a post-growth society to set in, to the delight of the degrowther advocates of décroissance, sooner rather than later, perhaps as soon as the coming decade. As is the overall quality of the report, with the strident alarmism—Japan is going to lose developed country status, Japan is going back to the Third World!—of the first slide undermined by the last slide, which has Japan sandwiched between the UK and Germany in 2050 per capita GDP. Presumably the alarmism is designed to foster public backing for the Keidanren agenda, but it’s hard to see what it contributes to the public debate, save to expose the think-tank’s vacuity. Still, as a friend forever likes to remind me when I point out the pointlessness of much developed-nation economic activity, we all have to put food on the wolf and keep the table from the door.

To return to demography (not that we ever really left it), here’s a demographic quiz. There’s a free lifetime subscription to Spike for the closest answer! (Oh, wait…) At the 2010 census, there were 253 cities across the nation with populations under 50,000. They form the backbone of rural Japan, ranging in size from Masuda in Shimane, at 49,925, to poor old Utashinai on the Sorachi coalfields, at 4,390, less than half the size of the next smallest city, and from Wakkanai, at the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, where the population has fallen by about a third from its 1975 peak, to Ishigaki, south of Taipei, where the population rose by about a third from 1970 to 2010 (trite moral of the story—people prefer living in subtropical paradises to wind-blasted and snow-swept fishing towns). Here’s the question: since the 2010 census, how many of the 253 have experienced population growth? (And no, the answer’s not none).

Finally, the photos of the week. One of the consequences of stopping shopping, as I did many moons ago, is that you eventually run out of clothes, which is inconvenient, as nudism as a hobby can only be practiced in the summer months, and also of footwear, so lately I have been down to three pairs: work shoes purchased around 2004, hiking boots purchased around 2002, and these Indonesian-made Nike trainers, purchased around 2000.

Tiring of gluing and regluing the soles to the uppers, I surrendered last weekend and splashed out on some new ones. Allow me to do something endearingly characteristic to animist societies such as this one, and address these inanimate objects directly with a funeral oration before consigning them to the incinerator of history.

So, dear shoes, I bid you a big old otsukaresama—you must be tired—and thank you so very much for carrying me to every single place that Spike has visited, to the northernmost, easternmost, southernmost, and westernmost tips of mainland Japan, to Brunei and to Bali and—many times—to Britain, for the untold millions of footsteps we have trodden together, for protecting my feet from snow and slush, from torrents and rivers of rain, and from mud and rubble, to name just a few of the host of threats to which an unshod foot is prey. You’ve had a hard life in my hands, I know, but I’d like to think it was a long and fruitful one. Goodbye, my faithful friends, goodbye.

Next time, there’ll be no demography, I promise. Until then…