Incredible Shrinking Country
By ROSS DOUTHAT
New York Times
April 28, 2012
“THE Children of Men,” P. D. James’s 1992 novel, is set in a future where the world’s male population has become infertile, and an aging Britain is adapting to the human race’s gradual extinction. Women push dolls in baby carriages. Families baptize kittens. There are state-run “national porn shops” to stimulate the flagging male libido. Suicide flourishes. Immigrants are welcomed as guest laborers but expelled once they become too old to work. The last children born on earth — the so-called “Omegas” — have grown up to be bored, arrogant, antisocial and destructive.
James’s book, like most effective dystopias, worked by exaggerating existing trends — the plunge in birthrates across the developed world, the spread of voluntary euthanasia in nations like the Netherlands and Switzerland, the European struggle to assimilate a growing immigrant population.
But one developed nation is making “Children of Men” look particularly prophetic. In Japan, birthrates are now so low and life expectancy so great that the nation will soon have a demographic profile that matches that of the American retirement community of Palm Springs. “Gradually but relentlessly,” the demographer Nick Eberstadt writes in the latest issue of The Wilson Quarterly, “Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction.”
Eberstadt has spent years writing about the challenges posed by declining fertility around the globe. But Japan, he notes, is a unique case. The Japanese birthrate hovers around just 1.3 children per woman, far below the level required to maintain a stable population. Thanks to increasing life expectancy, by 2040 “there could almost be one centenarian on hand to welcome each Japanese newborn.” Over the same period, the overall Japanese population is likely to decline by 20 percent, with grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net.
Japan is facing such swift demographic collapse, Eberstadt’s essay suggests, because its culture combines liberalism and traditionalism in particularly disastrous ways. On the one hand, the old sexual culture, oriented around arranged marriage and family obligation, has largely collapsed. Japan is one of the world’s least religious nations, the marriage rate has plunged and the divorce rate is higher than in Northern Europe.
Yet the traditional stigma around out-of-wedlock childbearing endures, which means that unmarried Japanese are more likely to embrace “voluntary childlessness” than the unwed parenting that’s becoming an American norm. And the traditional Japanese suspicion of immigration (another possible source for demographic vitality) has endured into the 21st century as well. Eberstadt notes that “in 2009 Japan naturalized barely a third as many new citizens as Switzerland, a country with a population only 6 percent the size of Japan’s and a reputation of its own for standoffishness.”
These trends are forging a society that sometimes evokes the infertile Britain in James’s dystopia. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and there were rashes of Internet-enabled group suicides in the last decade. Rental “relatives” are available for sparsely attended wedding parties; so-called “babyloids” — furry dolls that mimic infant sounds — are being developed for lonely seniors; and Japanese researchers are at the forefront of efforts to build robots that resemble human babies. The younger generation includes millions of so-called “parasite singles” who still live with (and off) their parents, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of the “hikikomori” — “young adults,” Eberstadt writes, “who shut themselves off almost entirely by retreating into a friendless life of video games, the Internet and manga (comics) in their parents’ home.”
If there’s any reason for real optimism in this picture, it’s for Americans, rather than for Japanese. Twenty years ago, when declinists predicted that the United States would soon cede global leadership to Japan, they cited the same domestic trends that pessimists (this columnist included) often cite today: our unsustainable deficits and our fraying social fabric, our decadent culture and our uncompetitive economy.
These problems are still with us, and some of them are worse than ever. But they haven’t left us in anything like the plight the Japanese are facing. Our family structures are weakening, but high out-of-wedlock birthrates may be preferable to no births at all. We assimilate immigrants more slowly than we should, but at least we’re capable of assimilation. American religion can be shallow, narcissistic and divisive, but our religious institutions still supply solidarity and uplift as well. Our economy is weak and our deficits are large, but at least we aren’t asking the next generation to bear the kinds of burdens that today’s under-30 Japanese will someday have to shoulder.
There is one modern world, but every civilization takes a different route through it. For all our problems, 21st-century Americans should be thankful that we aren’t headed toward the same sunset as Japan.