The Economist on Japan’s population “problem”

The Economist magazine likes to feel superior to anything it doesn’t understand. Luckily for its self-esteem, there is a lot in East Asia that has it stumped.  An example is Japan’s population policy.

In the course of a major article  on Japan’s declining population a few weeks ago, the Economist magazine expressed amazement that Japanese policymakers were not doing more to address the “problem.” Some problem. As I explained in a letter to the editor, Japanese leaders have long considered their nation grossly overpopulated and, far from trying to increase the birth rate, they have been working to reduce it.   The Economist never printed the letter but here it is:

Letter to the editor of the Economist: Japan’s population “problem”

Why is Tokyo so complacent about Japan’s demographic “problem” (The Economist, November 18, 2010)? This may be because, in light of unsustainably high population growth rates elsewhere in the world, the authorities quietly regard Japan’s low birthrate less as a problem than a solution. Here are a few facts:
1. With a population of fully 2,993 per square kilometre of arable land, Japan is burdened with one of the highest population densities of any significant nation in world history. By comparison, China, whose population has long been so high that the Beijing authorities have openly and forcibly controlled the birthrate, has a density less than one third as high. The  UK’s ratio is just 37 percent of Japan’s and America’s just 6 percent. (Source: the CIA Factbook.)
2. Already in former times, when Japan’s population was much lower than it is today, Japanese leaders acted  to correct a perceived overpopulation problem. Whereas in the 1930s they resorted to foreign conquest to feed an exploding population, after World War II they moved directly to slash the birthrate, not least via the Eugenic Protection Act of 1948. Under this law Japan became one of the first countries to legalize abortion, and the abortion rate duly rose more than four-fold in the next six years. (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1970.) This law, which for obvious reasons the authorities avoided publicizing in the West, also made sterilization and other forms of birth control universally available and instituted a domestic public relations programme to make larger families unfashionable.

Eamonn Fingleton
Tokyo 108 0073

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