Japan's dangerous population shift

In Japan, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, a government-affiliated organization, released an announcement projecting that Japan's population could fall from 127.09 million in 2015 to 88.08 million by 2065.  See "Kansai leaders grope for ways to keep regional population stable amid projected slide"

But that's not the worst news.

According to the organization's estimates in 2013 the eight major prefectures that make up the Kansai region are projected to lose about 25% of their population by 2050, and the age demographic will dramatically change, with over 40% of the population over 65 years old, and less than 10% under age 14.

Making babies is one major are of concern. There are a variety of social, business and other economic issues impacting Japanese society, leading to one of the lowest birth rates the country has ever seen.  There are not enough births to replace the current population at the same level. In 2016, the total Japanese population dropped by 162,000, the sixth consecutive year of population decline.  But in reality, during the same year the Japanese population actually dropped 299,000. The delta was a 136,000 increase in foreign residents, somewhat slowing down the dramatic population decrease.  See Japan Times "Japan’s population slips for sixth consecutive year but foreign residents slowing the fall"

One of the biggest problems facing Japan is a potential calamity that the central government of Japan just isn't addressing at all.  And the data is right in front of them: In 2015, the national census showed that Japan's total population had declined by 960,000 since 2010.  But during the same period of time Tokyo's population actually grew by 350,000. The reason? A well-known pattern of young people moving from smaller cities to two places, Tokyo and Osaka, and primarily the former. There's an unprecedented concentration of the Japanese population in the capitol.  So why is this so dangerous?

Experts advise that there is a 30% chance of a massive quake hitting Tokyo in the next 10 years, and a 70% chance of a major quake in the next 30 years. Those aren't the kind of odds I'd like to bet against. Japan learned a serious lesson from the Great Hanshin Quake that struck Kobe and the surrounding region in Western Japan in 1995. Not only were thousands of lives tragically lost, but that quake essentially "choked" the flow of critical utilities, goods and services, and more, essentially shutting down the economy for months if not years.  Even as I write this in 2017, more than 20 years later, Kobe is still struggling to recover to its prior economic state.

Reconstructing Kobe, by David Edgington

Reconstructing Kobe, by David Edgington

In his book Reconstructing Kobe, author David Edgington draws on years of extensive fieldwork and research recording the the first ten years of reconstruction and recovery of the city following the Great Hanshin Quake.  In reading the book, I couldn't help find myself becoming terrified of the potential ripple of issues that could fundamentally set Japan back decades should a major quake hit Tokyo while it houses such a disproportionate volume of Japan's population.

I think the central government should realize that now is the time to address the over-concentration of the Japanese population in Tokyo. Not just for residents of Tokyo, but for the survival of Japan as a whole when, not if, the next quake hits.

Of course, that's easier said than done. The first step Japan will need to take is making a decision that addressing the over-concentration issue is a priority. The second step will be looking at the possible options for addressing it.  The third step will be taking action.

As I drove through Kobe yesterday I saw signs of a solution all around me. Entrepreneurs starting new businesses - and small businesses - all over Kobe. And what I am learning is that Kobe, which is a wildly attractive city to non-Japanese such as myself, has the potential to attract more entrepreneurs from overseas, and in doing so could take the first steps of creating an entrepreneurial culture that actually results in new small businesses being created.  New businesses create new jobs, and Kobe, like many other beautiful places in Japan, has the beauty and amenities of a desirable place to live. I have met some people who really appreciate congested, frenzied deep-urban environments like Tokyo, but they are rare. And I'm not one of them.  The potential exists to reverse the over-concentration population issue, and it will require open-minded leaders within the cities, like Kobe, who truly want to see a solution to the problem, and in doing so potentially save Japan from an unprecedented calamity in the future.

The disaster that struck Kobe provides a very serious warning of the potential catastrophic effect of a forthcoming disaster in Tokyo with it's massively over-concentrated population.  All leaders in Japan should pay attention to this.  Ironically, the seeds of the solution exist in Kobe as well, and the potential exists for Kobe to serve as a progressive, forward-leaning and highly entrepreneurial city that could reboot Japan with energy and passion into the next century.