Japan’s population decline has once again caught the attention of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted about it, warning that the “rest of the world is trending to follow.” Musk cited a U.S. report on the Japanese health ministry’s preliminary data showing that the number of babies born in Japan in 2022 slipped below 800,000 for the first time since such data became available in 1899.
This is not the first time Musk has tweeted about depopulation in Japan. In May last year, he made a much talked-about tweet saying, “Unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist. This would be a great loss for the world.” In August of the same year, he warned that “population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.”
Musk’s latest tweet echoes concerns raised by Japanese officials and experts about the country’s rapidly shrinking population. Last month, Masako Mori, an upper house lawmaker and former minister who advises Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on birthrate and LGBTQ issues, warned that if nothing is done, the social security system would collapse, and there wouldn’t be enough recruits for the Self-Defense Forces to protect the country.
Mori pointed out that twice as many people died in Japan last year as were born. “It’s not falling gradually, it’s heading straight down,” she said, adding that a decline of this magnitude would throw children born now into a society that shrinks, distorts, and loses its ability to function. While reversing the slide now would be extremely difficult due to the fall in the number of women of childbearing age, the government must do everything it can to slow the plunge and help mitigate the damage, Mori said.
Kishida has vowed to double spending on children and families in a bid to control the slide, which is progressing even faster than forecast. The prime minister has yet to announce the content of his new spending package, but has said it will be “on a different dimension” from previous policies. So far he’s mentioned increasing child allowances, improving childcare provision, and changing working styles.
However, critics argue that throwing money at families who have children is not enough to address the problem. A paper from a government panel on gender equality said comprehensive changes are needed that include reducing the burden on women of raising children and making it easier for them to participate in the workforce after giving birth. Mori criticized what she said was a tendency to think about the issue separately from finance, trade, and particularly from female empowerment.
Japan’s population has fallen to 124.6 million from a peak of just over 128 million reached in 2008, and the pace of decline is increasing. Meanwhile, the proportion of people 65 or over rose to more than 29% last year. While South Korea has a lower fertility rate, Japan’s population is shrinking faster. If the trend continues, the social safety net and economy are at risk of being wrecked, Mori warned.