Japan's children steadily disappear

The Washington Post

TOKYO Japan celebrated a national holiday on Monday in honor of its children. But Children's Day might just as easily have been a national day of mourning.

For this is the land of a slow-motion demographic catastrophe that is without precedent in the developed world.

The number of children has declined for 27 consecutive years, a government report said over the weekend. Japan now has fewer children who are 14 or younger than at any time since 1908.

The proportion of children in the population fell to an all-time low of 13.5 percent. That number has been falling for 34 straight years. In the United States, children account for about 20 percent of the population.

Japan also has a surfeit of the elderly. About 22 percent of the population is 65 or older, the highest proportion in the world. And that number is on the rise. By 2020, the elderly will outnumber children by nearly 3 to 1, the government report predicted. By 2040, they will outnumber them by nearly 4 to 1.

Japan, now the world's second-largest economy, will lose 70 percent of its workforce by 2050 and economic growth will slow to zero, according to a report by the nonprofit Japan Center for Economic Research.

Population shrinkage began three years ago and is gathering pace. Within 50 years, the population, now 127 million, will fall by a third, the government projects. Within a century, two-thirds of the population will be gone.

Rural Japan, thus far, has borne the brunt of the slide. In depopulated small towns, stores are closing and governments are desperate for tax revenue. The government is subsidizing the development of robots as caregivers for the old.

Japan's future depends on metro Tokyo, home to about 35 million people, or 27 percent of the country's population.

But in Tokyo, children account for just 11.8 percent of the population, according to the new government report.

Copyright 2008 The Seattle Times Company