Alternatives to Japanese parenthood

Population decline is threatening the future of Japan, and changing attitudes toward relationships and sex are contributing to the problem.

Illustration by Kallum Best

Illustration by Kallum Best

Japan. A country known for its rich culture and history. Famous for delicious cuisine, hurtling bullet trains, and unique cultural trends such as anime. Its cities are packed to the brim, with over 9 million people living in Tokyo alone. Yet such an incredible and apparent population density masks a threat that has begun to stir within Japan. Japan’s bustling exterior and towering architecture hides a secretly shrinking population. Yes, Japan is currently in the grips of a serious population crisis. So what is a country to do when its future becomes uncertain? What does it do when its people stop having children? What will happen to the country that has given up on sex?

With a population of 126 million people packed onto a landmass of just under 380,000 km2 you would think Japan could afford to drop a couple of belt sizes. But with a rapidly aging society (33% of Japan’s population is over the age of 60) and the longest living population in the world (with an average lifespan of 83.7), Japan’s infrastructure is beginning to groan under the immense bulk of its aging population, putting more and more strain on its ever-shrinking youth demographic. The national population has been dropping for the past decade, and it’s estimated that it will decline by as much as a third by 2060

With such busy city centres, it may be surprising that population decline is an issue in Japan. Moyan Brenn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

With such busy city centres, it may be surprising that population decline is an issue in Japan. Moyan Brenn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Experts show that, in order to maintain population stability, the average birthrate must remain at 2.1 births per woman. This is known as the replacement rate, or the rate at which the number of births can balance out the number of deaths. Anything above 2.1 will see a population increase, anything below will see a decline. At present, Japan’s replacement rate is sitting at 1.43 as of the year 2015, well below the required 2.1. A study by the Statistics Bureau of Japan reported that in the six months leading up to May 2016, the population decreased by 150,000 people.

One cause of this has been labelled sekkusu shinai shokogun, or celibacy syndrome. Younger generations just aren’t interested in relationships or sex. A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men, and 49% of unmarried women aged 18-34 weren’t in any kind of romantic relationship, while a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. Further surveys found that 45% of women aged 16-24 were either not interested in or despised sexual contact, with more than a quarter of men feeling the same. So what is causing this reluctance towards romance?

Gender roles

Traditional values in Japan mean that only a minuscule 2% of children are born out of wedlock. Compare that to the 41% in the United States, or the astounding 53% in France, and it’s clear just how small Japan’s figure is. This means that, as marriage numbers decline, so do the birthrates. So why this intense aversion to marriage?

Gender equality has not managed a particularly firm foothold in Japanese culture. There are few support systems for working mothers, so the enormous financial strain of providing for the family falls to the husband. Japanese women that do have children are often forced to quit their jobs, as lack of support and a shortage of quality childcare facilities make it near-impossible to maintain both a child and a job. While women in Japan have become far more independent and ambitious, the traditional problem remains that a woman’s career often comes at the sacrifice of motherhood.

Lack of support for mothers make it difficult to have children and a career. mrhayata/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lack of support for mothers make it difficult to have children and a career. mrhayata/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Compounding this, previous generations came from a world where marriage was a much more political affair, and often arranged by a third party. The generations that followed, therefore, haven’t been given the skills they need to court one another. Many young men (and some young women) turn to the virtual world where inhibited social skills won’t impact their hopes of getting a partner.

Virtual love

Disinterest in sex and relationships has given rise to a fascinating trend. Otaku is a word used to describe an avid fan of manga and anime. Its closest English-equivalent would be ‘geek’. Within otaku culture there are many men who have given up on dating real women altogether, instead choosing to have virtual girlfriends. The otaku culture is a growing one, with one report by the Yano Research Institute revealing that 23% of the over 10,000 people that made up the poll considered themselves otaku.

Nintendo’s LovePlus allows individuals to date a virtual girlfriend through a small, portable tablet. In BBC Two’s documentary No Sex Please, We’re Japanese one man explained that “with so many wonderful distractions in Japan, why would you get involved in something as messy and commitment-oriented as a relationship when you can have a virtual girlfriend, a virtual experience that may even exceed the real thing?” One married otaku featured in the documentary was so involved with his virtual girlfriend that he couldn’t choose between his virtual girlfriend and his wife.


Japanese men are developing relationships with their choice of virtual girlfriend using games like Nintendo’s LovePlus.


This generation of ‘geeks’ grew up in a time of economic stagnation, which may explain why so many have chosen to immerse themselves in their own fantasy worlds. In the same BBC Two documentary, an interview with Tokyo-based social commentator Roland Kelts suggested that, in Japan’s terrible economy, young Japanese men have become pessimistic about their future. They don’t believe they will ever be able to match their parents’ wealth, so they don’t wish to commit themselves to a relationship that they can’t support. The rise of manga and virtual girlfriends may simply be an escape from a world that has spiralled out of their control.

You can understand why many men choose to turn to the virtual world rather than confront such heavy responsibilities, particularly as the decline of lifetime job security has made men less career-driven and less solvent.

A changing demographic

Prior to the 1990s, Japan’s population formed a balanced pyramid, with the working youth majority providing a strong base upon which the elderly minority was supported. The pyramid is now turning on its head, with the swelling numbers of elderly balancing precariously atop a rapidly crumbling and unstable pillar of youth.

Traditionally the population bulge would be around the bottom, but in Japan there is a significant spike around the 65-69yo mark. US Census Bureau

Traditionally the population bulge would be around the bottom, but in Japan there is a significant spike around the 65-69yo mark. US Census Bureau


With too many retirees and too few children, Japan’s economy cannot maintain its elderly support programs. The dwindling working demographic and the swelling number of elderly people means that the economy simply isn’t able to support its top-heavy demographic.

Population decline can have far-reaching effects on the people of Japan. Not only will it become harder to fund the pensions of the elderly, but there will be fewer young carers to look after them. As well, as the population ages, strains on medical facilities will increase, strains that will be further compounded by a lack of young nurses and doctors to replace retiring generation of medical practitioners. Japan may simply not have the facilities to support the medical requirements of its people.

A declining population, and thus, a decline in the number of consumers spending money in Japan, would have devastating effects on the Japanese economy. The collapse of the Japanese economy would, by extension, have effects on Japan’s trading relations, and therefore, impact its trading partners; China, the United States and Australia among them. With fewer workers for their factories, we may very well see a decline in well-known Japanese brands such as Honda, Toyota, Nintendo and Toshiba.

Potential solutions

What can Japan do to solve its population crisis? Japan might need to take another look at its traditional views of women, and may also benefit from reversing its traditionally averse attitude towards immigrants.

For one, Japan could look at providing better support plans for working mothers. One study found that 60% of women left the workforce after having their first child. Meaning a perfectly able demographic that could easily fill dwindling ranks within the workforce, is being ignored. Flexible hours and more privately-owned childcare centres will allow for mothers to return to the workplace and raise their children at the same time, rather than forcing them to choose between working and having children.

Access to childcare is important to enable mothers to go back to work. Pieterjan Vandaele/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Access to childcare is important to enable mothers to go back to work. Pieterjan Vandaele/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


As well, Japan could consider relaxing its immigration restrictions and allowing more foreigners to supplement its shrinking numbers within the workforce. Suspicious of foreign immigrants and reluctant to dilute its exceptionally homogenous society, Japan, as with many Asian countries, has an extremely low immigration rate. Japan may need to consider opening its doors to the world, and letting the sunlight (and immigrants) stream in.

Japan is unlikely to be organising any sweeping overhauls of immigration restrictions any time soon, but perhaps targeted immigration could be the answer. With a massive shortage in childcare facilities, allowing foreign childcare workers into the country would supplement the workforce, and allow Japanese mothers the facilities they need to return to work. 

A growing trend

Is Japan’s situation an isolated incident? Experts looking at population trends across the world suggest that, no, it is not. Compounded by gender inequality, economic problems and a strong resistance to immigration, Japan is certainly an extreme example, but developed countries all over the world are beginning to show similar trends. With people living longer and having fewer children, by 2050 it is expected that many developed countries will be facing the same bleak prospects as Japan, with the number of elderly people expected to double the number of young people.

The future is bleak for Japanese children if the birth rate continues to drop. Jeff Laitila/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The future is bleak for Japanese children if the birth rate continues to drop. Jeff Laitila/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Already, many developed countries are well below the average of 2.1 births per woman required for the population to remain stable. Germany is at 1.36, while Hong Kong has dropped as low as 1.19. America is in better but still worrying shape at 1.86, while Australia is at 1.77. With the heightened cost of living, and a crumbling economy that may see Millennials labelled the first generation in history to earn less than their parents, people are marrying later and birthrates are dropping.

Experts have estimated that the rate of population-growth within developed countries will continue to slow, and stop altogether within this century. Then it will start declining. While the world is panicking about ballooning populations, a crisis that still holds true for developing countries such those in Africa, where overpopulation is still a serious threat, it seems that developed countries are facing the opposite threat.

Desperate to preserve its rich culture from outside influences, Japan may prefer to maintain its distance from the rest of the world. But it is perhaps this hermitic behaviour that has seen Japan facing this crisis before the rest of the world. Many developed countries will now be watching Japan closely for clues as to how best to face the problems of an ageing and rapidly deflating population. We can only hope Japan will find the answer before expert predictions become a reality, and the problem is irreversible. 

Edited by Deborah Kane