October 9, 2005

Japan to face population shrinkage

TOKYO, Oct. 2 (Xinhuanet) -- Like it or not, Japan is destined to face social crisis as its population begins to shrink after growing for more than a century, except for during the World War II period.

    The number of Japanese was estimated at about 33 million in the late 1860s and grew at a relatively steady pace to 126.93 million in 2000.

    Japan became a rich industrialized nation in postwar years by harnessing this young and plentiful population. But the declining birth rate is leading to the swift graying of the society.

    Local experts on social study say the total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime -- ofmore than two is necessary for a country to sustain its population.     

    But Japan's birthrate has been plunging since it was at 1.91 in1975. It stood at 1.29 in 2003.

    According to Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSSR), the population will start decreasing from 2007.

    IPSSR predicts that the natural decline, which means the numberof dead deducted from the number newborns, will total about 700,000 in the second half of 2020s -- equivalent to losing the populations of major cities like Kumamoto or Shizuoka every year.

    The population is forecast to drop to 100.59 million in 2050 --the level of 1967. The projection is based on the premise that thebirthrate will dwindle to 1.31 in 2007 but will recover to 1.39.

    But in reality, the birthrate is plummeting at an even faster pace.

    And Japan is not alone, many other rich countries face the sameproblem. The issue is even hitting Asia -- South Korea's birthratehas dropped to 1.54 in recent years.

    The trend will have a big impact on the workforce and is sparking fears that it will take a big bite out of Japan's economic might.

    Many figures point to this scenario. The average age is expected to rise from 41.4 in 2004 to 51.3 in 2050; the number of Japanese aged 65 or older will double swiftly from 10 percent of the population in 21 years compared with around 75 years for Britain and France; and the percentage of people aged 15 to 64 years old is expected to fall from 68.1 percent in 2000 to 53.6 percent in 2050.

    These changes will make it difficult for the nation to maintainthe social security system, including pension benefits and medicalinsurance.

    By prefecture, only Tokyo, Kanagawa, Shiga and Okinawa prefectures in the country will post population growth from 2000-2030.

    Thirty prefectures will see a 10 percent decline, while Akita, Yamaguchi and Nagasaki prefectures will face a more than 20 percent drop.

    The population of those aged 65 or older will continue to soar in cities in prefectures such as Tokyo and its neighboring Kanagawa prefecture.

    The number will double in 30 years from the 2000 level in Saitama and Chiba prefectures, indicating that the aging population in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area will become hugecrisis for the nation.

    Calls for drastic reform of the system are being made, but the parliament has been dragging its feet on the matter.

    According to IPSSR data, Japanese government spent about 47 trillion yen (about 415.9 billion US dollars) on social security benefits in fiscal 1990 and this amount skyrocketed to about 85 trillion yen (752.2 billion US dollars) in fiscal 2004, which ended on March 31 this year.

    Pension benefits account for more than half of the total socialsecurity expenditures. Each senior citizen was supported by 3.1 working adults in 2000. But 1.4 will have to support such a personin 2050

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