No country for young men

[Editor’s note : Coincidentally, two friends brought up the topic of the ageing of Asia recently. One gave the link to a World Affairs Journal blogpost on his facebook page, and another wrote about the ageing of Japan on his own blog after a visit to that country. This post is a reproduction of the latter (read it here) and is being run on the Escape Velocity blog with the author’s permission.]


Not that long ago, Japan was the cynosure of the world’s eyes – anxiously watched by the developed world, enviously admired by the developing.  It was, by all accounts, the center of technology innovation and hi-tech manufacturing prowess.  A whole cottage industry developed around Japan watching, and incorporation of Japanese principles into management.  What a difference a couple of decades makes!  At a conference the other day, someone asked a speaker “Is Japan the future of Europe?” That tone in his voice?  Closer to dread than envy.

The stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last twenty years is now a much discussed topic.  The demographic challenges of the country are also well known as one of the fundamental drivers behind the malaise.  I was as aware of the statistics as the next guy when I went for my first visit to Japan recently.  From the moment the plane landed in Osaka, though, the reality of the situation hit me as if for the first time.

If demographics is destiny, Japan is headed down a road to oldtown.  Let’s look at the statistics first.  In 2011, 23% of the population was 65 years or older.  By 2050, that proportion is expected to grow to 40%!  Two our of every five people would be over 65! The very young, i.e. less than 15 years old population is only 13%, the lowest of major countries.  And it is going down, not up.  By 2050, this proportion is expected to be only 9%.  The population pyramid of the country, which shows the distribution by age group, has been tagged by some as going from Pyramid to Kite.

japan's age distribution

This isn’t all with their demographic trouble either.  Apart from the distribution by age getting worse, the overall population of Japan, for all practical purposes, has peaked and has now started to shrink.  The population today is exactly the same as it was in 2001.

Now as I said, some of this was known to me, in broad brush-strokes if not in this detail.  But seeing it in person is a whole other thing.

Osaka is the commercial capital of Japan.  I have never been to Tokyo and I guess I was expecting the sparkling sights and bright neon lights of the capital.  The first impression Osaka makes though is not nearly as spectacular.  There are the obligatory tall buildings and well developed roads, but it all seemed just a little run down.  The hanging electrical wires, the mildly unsavory back alleys and the generally well aged buildings were my first clue that this wasn’t going to be the Japan I expected to see.

The more I looked, the clearer the images got.  This is not a country for young men (or women).  Most everyone around seems just a tad older than expected.  I took the subway a few times during my stay, and by my count, I saw no more than three kids over all my hours of subway travel.  Clearly, there aren’t enough children in this country.

It isn’t uncommon of course, for high income economies to have low birth rates.  Much of Europe is a case in point.  The way most countries end up solving that problem, is through more open immigration.  Invite more … let’s say fertile, citizens from developing countries, and you solve two problems at the same time – those of getting enough labour force for all the work of running a country, and of making enough babies to have a country in the future.  On this front, Japan seems maddeningly closed minded.

This is not a country that is very foreigner friendly.  I don’t mean the people are rude to foreigners.  Far from it.  In fact, I found the Japanese to be among the warmest, most helpful people I have ever encountered.  But somehow, the culture as a whole seems too … self-sufficient.  Too internally focused.  Closed.  All signage in the city are in Japanese.  Or almost all, at any rate.  If you don’t know the script, and have undertaken a foolhardy venture to explore the city by yourself, by subway, well – good luck to you!

I stand in line at a station along with many other patient locals, waiting for my turn at the ticket machine.  I reach there finally, only to find that every single sign on the machine is in Japanese.  I can’t make out what buttons I am supposed to press to make a darn ticket pop out!  I exit in frustration, walk up to the ticket booth attendant to ask for his help.  Only to realize that he doesn’t know a word of English either.  We do some sign language, I show him the ticket machine, say the word ‘English’ many times, and he finally gets it.  He directs to another machine on the side.  This one does have English sub-titles.  There you go!  I am sure I am on my way now.

Except of course, I am not.  Turns out, the machine doesn’t accept cards (or doesn’t accept international cards, not sure which).  It needs currency.  And I don’t have any Yen on me, having left the hotel confident in the ability of plastic to get me around the city.  But what is it I see there?  An ATM!  That should do the trick.  We are back to the patient line standing business now.  Get to the ATM finally, to discover … yup, all Japanese.  Try to figure this guy out.  A helpful old (they are mostly old) gentleman recognizes my problem and signs me some help.  Not that it gets me far though, because the machine doesn’t accept international cards either, even though it prominently displays the Visa and Mastercard logos.  Finally, I find a currency exchange counter (also manned by a lady who doesn’t speak English), get hold of some Yen, and at long last get on the train.

Walking the street later that night looking for dinner, I am reminded again that this country would rather be just left alone.  I don’t think my vegetarianism has given me this much trouble in any country as it did in Japan.  The Japanese, bless them, have a well evolved cuisine of their own, and give no room for vegetarians in it.  And going with the general trend in other matters, there isn’t much in the name of international fare in the city either.

So yes, it can safely be said that this isn’t a country that is going to willingly or easily welcome a horde of immigrants to solve its aging problem.

My short Japanese adventure over, I am on my Japan Airlines flight back, flying to Bangkok where a familiar Jet Airways to Mumbai awaits.  My seat doesn’t want to recline, hard as I try.  I call the crew member.  An elderly Japanese lady arrives, recognizes the problem in one look, and nods knowingly.  She presses hard against the recliner lever while encouraging me to push back as hard as I can.  I do, and with a soft creak of protest, the seat gives up its verticality.  “It is a very old plane sir” offers the stewardess, smiling sweetly.

A few hours later, I am on Jet Airways, moving onward to Mumbai.  Some rows behind are what appear to be half a dozen screaming children, their noises melding into one another, till it is no longer clear whether their squeals are of protest, complaint, celebration or simply ticklishness.  We seem over-weight on our kids quota today.  Yes sir, we are flying back to India.


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