On Addressing Japan’s Declining Population With a Landmass to Population Metric

James Rogers, Meijo University [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 April 2023.


Japan’s declining population is well-known throughout the world as a serious problem, and various approaches by its government have not been successful at curbing the decline. A landmass to population ratio (LMtPR) metric was used in this study to determine what Japan’s population would be if it had a similar LMtPR to other countries across the world. This determined what Japan’s population would be if it had a similar LMtPR to developed nations, and the resulting data led to the realisation that Japan has a number of similarities with a particular country that has a significantly smaller LMtPR. Despite the smaller LMtPR, this country maintains a vibrant economy, is considered a world power, and has no issues maintaining its sovereignty. These results point to a population well below Japan’s current level to which it can fall while still maintaining its world power status, economy, and quality of life.

Keywords: Japanese declining population, landmass, birthrate, sovereignty, immigration


Japan’s population has been in decline for decades now. The Japanese government, economists, and its citizens have expressed serious concerns about this fact and numerous actions have been taken but the population continues to decline. Even the international community has taken notice. On May 8th, 2022, Elon Musk tweeted that if Japan’s population continues its current course, Japan will cease to exist. This was clearly hyperbole, but determining the level at which its population will stabilise would be useful for future governmental planning. In addition, realising what kind of economy and quality of life is possible at such a level is also important to help Japan determine whether or not such a decline will have negative effects on its sovereignty and world power status. Throughout Japan, the consensus is that its declining population is not only a problem but a very serious one. However, the question of how the decline can be stopped also needs to be considered since attempts at expansion via emigration in the past have not continued, and any governmental attempts at either stabilising or increasing its population via incentives to have more children or via immigration have also not proven fruitful.
Thus, estimating at what point Japan’s population can stabilise while maintaining its current quality of life and world power status would be useful for future provisional planning. It is highly unlikely that Japan’s population will become zero as Musk predicted, but what could be a population target for Japan that will not negatively affect its ability to continue at its current quality of life and world power status? This number can be estimated by utilising an LMtPR metric.

Literature Review

Curtin (2003) notes that in 2001, Japan had the lowest number of births since 1945 at approximately 1.1 million. In fact, the birth rate in Japan had been on the decline since the 1970s and on the government’s radar for some time. Researchers in the 1960s even discussed the issue, expressing concern about a decline in population from 1950 to 1957 after Japan’s post-World War II baby boom peaked (Yamaguchi & Takahashi, 1966). The current level of population decline is considered quite serious in that researchers such as Miranda (2018) refer to it as Japan’s ‘demographic time bomb.’ Curtin (2003) also notes that the Japanese government designated the first action plan to tackle the issue in 2003. However, despite these efforts, in 2021 the number of births continued to slide to approximately 840,000, and thus actions taken over the last 20 years have been ineffective. So, the question remains as to why the population continues to decline despite such efforts.
Nast (2017) notes the ‘trauma’ of the 1990s financial bubble bursting in Japan and its effects on males’ confidence in their ability to fulfill the traditional role of breadwinner, which resulted in a generation weary of marriage and having children. Curtin (2003) also notes a decline in marriages starting in 2001, but also an increase in divorces from 1990 to 2001. Matsubara (2007) also points out the significant effect the economic bubble bursting had on the nation’s economy, such as the depression in land prices. He goes on to point out that the declining population has created a vicious cycle where idle land and abandoned homes have exacerbated economic issues. Kosai, Saito, and Yashiro (1998) echo this existence of a vicious cycle as population decline has led to a decrease in the labour force, resulting in negative effects on the economy because of a lack of workers.
Other researchers point out the fact that Japan is the country with the longest life expectancy in the world, and that as technology and health services improve, people are living longer lives (Jack, 2016; Miranda, 2018). With the resulting larger elderly population in comparison to the past, the younger generation must cope with a change in how much they need to pay to support their needs. Miranda (2018) specifies that social security costs may go from 108 trillion yen in 2011 to 151 trillion yen by 2025. This cost increase, in turn, may limit the amount of money available for child-rearing and may lead some couples to opt to have fewer children, if any at all.
Atoh (2017) points out that Japan, Italy, and Germany all had similarly low fertility rates in 1969 (1.48, 1.5, and 1.5, respectively). However, Japan’s decline first began in 2010 and it has experienced a decline of approximately 1% from 2017-2020, with its fertility rate falling to 1.34 in 2020. In contrast, Italy’s fertility rate fell to 1.24 in 2020 but its decline only began in 2017 and was only approximately 0.3% from 2017-2020. Germany, on the other hand, experienced a population growth of 1% from 2017-2020, and in 2020 its fertility rate increased to 1.53. The only explanation for the growth in Italy and Germany despite not having an adequate fertility rate for maintaining a population of 2.1 is reliance on immigration, which is difficult for Japan for several reasons.
Researchers and government initiatives in Japan have, in fact, been looking to immigration as a potential solution to Japan’s declining population. However, Curtin (2002) points out that if Japan aimed to maintain its 1995 labour force, it would have 33.5 million immigrants living within its borders by 2050 (30% of its predicted population), radically changing a once mostly homogeneous society in which only 2.3% of its population were non-Japanese citizens in 2020. Curtin also points out that, despite the potential benefits an increase in immigration would bring, a large increase would not find much public acceptance. Miranda (2018) agrees, explaining how Japan’s image of itself as a homogeneous society and a culture with a strong group mentality may be a barrier that will prevent the easy assimilation of foreigners into society.
Another issue for Japan relying on immigration as an issue may be linguistic. Immigrants from China may not struggle with a written language barrier because of the similarities between the two country’s writing systems, but immigrants from other countries may struggle to gain literacy due to Japan’s writing system and, in turn, not be able to adapt to society or move up in their careers. Data from the U.S. Department of State (n.d.) shed light on the level of difficulty of Japan’s writing system as it ranks language difficulty for a variety of languages to be learned by a native English speaker into four categories. To achieve ‘professional working proficiency’ in a particular language, Category 1 requires 600-700 hours of study and includes languages such as French and Swedish. Category 2 requires 900 hours and includes languages such as German and Indonesian. Category 3 requires 1,100 hours and includes languages such as Hebrew and Greek. Finally, the most difficult category (Category 4) requires 2,200 hours of study and includes languages such as Japanese and Arabic. Thus, languages with writing systems that are very different from an immigrant’s own may act as barriers to adapting to life in the new country. These barriers may lead to lower wages, limits on job opportunities, cultural misunderstanding, etc., thus preventing easy assimilation for immigrants.
So, is the solution to this to stop using characters for its writing system? Countries such as Korea and Vietnam both abandoned previously used character systems. However, not only would a large portion of Japan’s population be against this because of a strong sense of pride concerning its cultural heritage, the historical and cultural loss would be tremendous. Such an action may be viewed in the future as a mistake in the same way that the demolition of the original Penn Station in 1963 was, which spurred the creation of the 1965 New York City Landmarks Law to protect historical landmarks. However, once lost, it may be very difficult to bring back, such as the difficulties that Ireland faces in its attempts to bring back Gaelic. Thus, such an approach to making immigration into Japan easier may not only be unfeasible due to public sentiment but also may prove disastrous in the future.
The population decline of Japan is especially problematic in rural areas, as more and more of the younger generations move to large cities such as Tokyo. The Science Council of Japan (2017) points out that the largest group moving to Tokyo were aged 15-24. In reaction to many years of continued decline and failed attempts at curbing it, some Japanese citizens in rural areas have begun to accept that Japan’s population will simply continue to decline, and are instead focusing on creating sustainability while it declines instead of continuing to try in vain to stabilise or reverse the population trend. For example, Matanle and Sato (2010) discuss Sado Island’s double negative population disequilibrium, where ‘both the migratory and natural reproduction population contributions have turned negative’ (p. 187). They state that the island is now refocusing its efforts with actions such as providing educational opportunities to learn bamboo and ceramic crafts indigenous to Sado. These efforts aim to utilise the island’s cultural heritage to prevent its population from further decline by providing economic opportunities connected to it, giving people a reason to stay, and giving people from outside of the island a reason to visit.
Efforts to promote domestic tourism to places such as Sado Island mentioned above may also increase an area in which Japan has been excelling for a considerable amount of time: international tourism. Over the last 20 years, Japan has experienced a boom in tourist visits, and the trend continues upward with the government setting a goal in 2016 to increase tourism from 24 million visitors to 40 million visitors by 2020 (see Figure 1 below). The country seemed to be on track toward potentially achieving that goal with nearly 32 million visitors in 2019, but the impact of COVID-19 significantly affected 2020 tourism and this did not occur.
Figure 1. The Number of Overseas Visitors to Japan From 2003-2020 (Data Source is Nippon.com, 2020)
As Japan’s population declines, there are unavoidable negative effects on its economy. There will be less tax money for the government to use to provide basic services, such as pensions for its growing elderly population, and this burden may fall on the country’s current generation of youth with increases in taxes. This may, in turn, create a vicious cycle that leads to less money for child-rearing and the decision by some to have fewer children because of a lack of money. It is already happening in that the consumption tax rate was raised in 2019 from 8% to 10% and Morinobu (2019) notes that Japan’s finance ministry is considering further raising it to 15% in 2025 to grapple with rising social welfare expenses due to its increasing elderly population and decrease in working-age taxpayers to support them. Thus, a potential partial solution to the issue may be in tourism.
In fact, Japan can still further improve its tourist-attracting capabilities and it is currently making such efforts. Futagami (2022) notes that the Japan Tourism Agency is currently considering a successful model used in Slovenia for setting sustainability and certification standards for sustainable tourism. Thus, there may be even more growth in this area in Japan’s future. If further growth in tourism can be achieved, it may fill the gap of dwindling tax money from its citizens with that coming from overseas visitors.
Moreover, population decline can also have positive effects on a country that many consider overpopulated. Until the population stabilises, Japan’s younger generation will have to pay more taxes to support the elderly. On the other hand, college graduates will have more job opportunities or receive higher salaries since there will be less competition. So, any additional taxes to support the elderly for one or more generations until the population stabilises at some point may be offset by the benefits of less job competition for the younger generation. Other positive aspects include how former Prime Minister Abe’s three arrows policy approach toward a stagnant economy exacerbated by the declining population has created more job opportunities for women, thus improving gender equality (Miranda, 2018). Miranda notes how the salaries of females living in households earning 10 million yen or more per year increased by over 7% between 2002 and 2016, while the salaries of females living in households earning less than 10 million yen or more per year increased by over 9% during the same period.
Ironically, many decades before Japan’s population issue became a national focal point, some researchers actually expressed negative sentiments regarding a population increase in Japan. Yamaguchi and Takahashi (1966) note that while a population increase may increase the labour force and, in turn, increase the productive capacity of the nation as a whole, increases in population in a country with limited resources may lead to a lower quality of life for its citizens. They recommend that a variety of factors be taken under consideration when formulating an opinion of whether or not population increase is positive or negative, stating that an analysis of the ‘complicated and delicate interaction of socio-economic conditions of the society’ is necessary to correctly evaluate population change (p. 43). Perhaps Japan is currently overcrowded, but its citizens just do not realise it because they have gotten used to its current LMtPR.
However, a drop in LMtPR beyond a certain level may result in a country’s inability to sustain its economy and protect its borders, and its citizens may no longer be able to enjoy a vibrant culture and society. For instance, if a country has an extremely small LMtPR, it may have difficulty protecting itself against invaders or maintaining any kind of large-scale economy to export its goods across the world and bring in income as Japan currently does. In addition, having a small population in comparison to other developed nations may affect the country’s ability to thrive culturally. Places with large populations are known as centres of art, music, and culture that are fun and exciting places to live. The vibrant nature of such places leads to a virtuous cycle in which talented people from not only the country itself but all over the world flock to it. However, such cultural centres may not develop to such an extent if the population does not support them. Furthermore, such a country may then experience a ‘brain drain’ as talented workers flock to more culturally vibrant countries.
On the other hand, with its reputation for world-leading technology industries, Japan’s ability to protect itself as its population declines may not be an issue in this technological age. Gone are the days when large armies face off on the battlefield and charge at each other and the side with the larger number wins. Today, the use of high technology in defense can sometimes be more effective than human resources. For instance, a small number of people with computer skills can launch hacking attacks to impair their enemy’s ability to provide basic services such as electricity to millions of its citizens. So, if Japan accepts that it cannot stop its population from declining, then perhaps it should consider the point where it needs to stabilise to ensure that it can maintain its world power status and sovereignty. It should thus focus not on increasing its population, but rather on accepting the decline and adjusting for its effects on society by taking steps to develop and educate its citizens in a manner that can maintain or improve the quality of life and power Japan aims to have, albeit with a smaller population.
Comparing Japan’s current LMtPR with that of current powerful, developed countries with global military might, vibrant economies, and rich cultures can help to shed light on practical expectations for what can be achieved at a particular LMtPR. The same can be done with historical data regarding past world powers and also for what Japan has achieved in the past with previous LMtPRs. Consideration for a country to defend and feed itself, develop its own industries, arts, and culture, and live a high standard of life in comparison to other countries can help identify a standard LMtPR to compare Japan’s LMtPR with. Examining the populations of current and past world superpowers, in addition to Japan’s own past populations and achievements at those times, may shed light on what is practically feasible with Japan’s landmass.
However, a simple comparison of LMtPR may not be appropriate if the geography or climate of the countries in question have features that significantly affect habitability. For example, it would be inappropriate to compare the LMtPR of Australia with that of Japan due to the fact that the vast majority of the Australian landmass is uninhabitable due to a lack of rainfall and extreme heat. Since this current study will make a specific comparison between the LMtPR of the United States and Japan, and Germany and Japan, the geography and weather of these countries and any effects these two factors have on habitation should be discussed.
Approximately 80% of Americans live east of a nearly vertical line between San Antonio and Fargo (the 100th meridian). There are 50 million people living west of a roughly vertical line down the west coast of the United States between Los Angeles and Seattle and the 100th meridian, which makes up one-third of the United States’ landmass. Approximately 50% of the people in this region live in eight major cities (Boise, Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tuscan, Albuquerque, and El Paso). If the populations of these cities are excluded, only 15 million people live on one-third of the landmass of the United States. If there was an equal distribution of population to landmass, this number should be 110 million (or approximately 7 times larger).

The fact that this large portion of the landmass of the United States is not suitable to support large populations has been known for some time. Powell (1879) noted that there was not enough water to support habitation in the lands west of the 100th meridian. He noticed that the variety of plant species diminished significantly west of this line because of a lack of rain. Annual rainfall decreases significantly west of this line up until the coastal areas west of Los Angeles in the south and Seattle in the north. The reason for this is several very tall mountain ranges along the West Coast of the United States that create a ‘rain shadow’ that blocks moisture from the ocean from moving inland and falling in the form of rain. This leads to the area east of these mountain ranges receiving very little rain and thus making it uninhabitable because of a lack of drinking water, water for irrigation, and due to extreme heat. The main mountain range that creates this rain shadow is the Rocky Mountains. Other mountain ranges with significant height that contribute to this are the Cascade Mountains, Sierra Nevadas, and the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges.
So, because a third of the landmass of the United States is uninhabitable to some extent, to compare the LMtPR of the United States with Japan may be misleading since Japan does not have mountain ranges which creates such an issue. However, Japan does have a large proportion of its landmass north enough to create habitation issues due to its cold climate and amount of snowfall. Japan’s prefecture of Hokkaido is 83,450 square kilometres (22% of Japan’s total landmass) but it only has a population of approximately 5.3 million people. If there was an equal distribution of population to landmass, this number should be 27.6 million (or approximately 5 times larger). In comparison, most of the land west of the 100th meridian in the United States has a population that should be 7 times larger if there was an equal distribution of population to landmass. By considering the extent of the rain shadow of the United States and Hokkaido’s climate on habitability, it makes the comparison between the LMtPR of the United States and Japan not unreasonable in that these two factors cancel each other out to some extent due to the percentage of landmass in question being somewhat similar.
Regarding the geographic features and climate of Germany that affect habitability, the country does not have extreme heat during its summer, with maximum temperatures being only 23/26 degrees Celsius. Germany does not have extreme climatic issues such as Australia’s ‘west Australian current,’ which prevents rainfall for most of the continent’s interior, leading to extreme temperatures of up to 53 degrees Celsius in its deserts. Although Germany’s winters are cold, it does not get as much snow as sparsely populated areas of Japan such as Hokkaido. In total, Germany has an average of 76 centimetres of snowfall while Sapporo has an average of 172 centimetres.
However, two German states do have much colder climates than the rest of the country. The state of Brandenburg’s average winter temperature is from -1.6 to 3.3 degrees Celsius, while the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s average winter temperature is from -1 to 2.8 degrees Celsius. In comparison, Hokkaido’s average winter temperatures are from -7 to 0 degrees Celsius. Total annual snowfall averages are 10.9 centimetres and 12.4 centimetres, respectively. So, in comparison with Hokkaido, the winters in these regions are not as extreme. However, the climate seems to have an effect on habitability in that these are the only two German states that have a population of fewer than 100 people per square kilometre. The total landmass of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern combined is 52,659 square kilometres or 14.7% of Germany’s total landmass. With this in mind, the habitability issues of Hokkaido (22% of Japan’s total landmass) can be disregarded to some extent if these two German states are considered and only the remaining landmasses of Japan and Germany are compared.
As for geographic issues, while Germany does have mountains, they are not high enough, they do not cover a large enough area, or they are not positioned along coastal regions to create vast arid regions across its landmass as the ranges in the United States do. Germany’s highest mountain range is the Zugspitze, with peaks of approximately 2,900 metres. In comparison, the Rocky Mountains peaks are approximately 4,400 metres, the Sierra Nevadas 4,300 metres, the Cascades 4,400 metres, and the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges 3,500 metres. The area of the Rocky Mountains also needs to be considered. This massive mountain range covers 990,000 square kilometres of land. This massive size of the Rocky Mountains and the positioning of it and the other ranges vertically along the west coast of the United States are the factors that lead to the significant effect on the habitability of such a large portion of the country’s landmass. Germany, in comparison, does not have such extreme geographic features.
Therefore, because of its longitudinal positioning and lack of geographic features that significantly affect climate, Germany gets ample rainfall and thus has a large percentage of arable land. In fact, out of all European Union countries with a landmass of 50,000 square miles or more, Germany ranks second regarding the percentage of its landmass being used for agriculture (MOW, 2018). This percentage has not changed much over 65 years. In 1965, Germany’s percentage of arable land was 35% of its landmass while now it was 33.4% in 2020 (The World Bank, n.d.-b). In contrast, Japan’s percentage of arable land was 14.9% of its landmass in 1965 while it was 11.3% in 2020 as the nation has become more industrialised (The World Bank, n.d.-c). Since this current study argues that a smaller population may be more appropriate for Japan, this difference between Japan’s and Germany’s percentage of arable land makes it more salient that the makeup of Japan’s landmass may not be sufficient to sustain its current population.
A comparison between Germany and Japan is logical due to both countries having a similar landmass and socio-econcomic status, but a comparison between the United States and Japan may not seem to be logical due to the significant landmass difference between the two nations. However, the comparison has been made because of the fact that the United States is considered to be the world’s largest superpower, and as Japan’s population dwindles one of the worries voiced by its government and citizens is its ability to maintain its sovereignty and world power status. Thus, it is prudent to determine what kind of LMtPR the world’s leading superpower has.

First, it should be noted that the United States has not held this position for a significant amount of time. According to Taagepera (1998), the British Empire controlled the largest area of land in human history at the peak of its power in 1920 at 13.71 million square miles (or 26% of the world’s landmass). However, this was with a United Kingdom population of 44 million. In comparison, Japan shocked the world in 1905 by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) with a population of just 47 million. This event transformed Japan’s image internationally as a world power over 100 years ago with a significantly smaller population than it has now as it was able to defeat a country previously considered to be significantly more powerful than it. However, these numbers may be misleading if taken at face value. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (1951) estimated that the world’s total population in 1920 was 1.834 billion. However, today the world’s population is now approximately 7.8 billion (United Nations, 2019). If the United Kingdom was to have a similar population ratio in comparison to the world today as it did in 1920, its population would need to be approximately 187 million. Such a population target may not be realistically feasible for a country such as Japan which is already experiencing population decline and is, even now at 125 million, considered crowded. If Japan was to have a similar LMtPR with the United Kingdom at its peak of power but with consideration for the world population of today, Japan’s population would need to be 291 million. Thus, a better gauge of a country that has achieved leading world power status with a less crowded LMtPR may be the United States.
Using the United States’ LMtPR may be useful for numerous reasons. Despite changes in the world economy in more recent years, the United States still leads and dominates the world economy in a variety of ways with its current LMtPR. It not only has a vibrant world-leading economy with companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon, but it also has built its infrastructure and machinery with large domestic corporations such as GM, Ford, and Boeing, which have transitioned to military machinery creation in the past, such as during World War II. In addition, despite having a much lower LMtPR in comparison to Japan, it has never been invaded despite having very large borders due to its military might as a deterrent. Even as the world economy is shifting from the United States as its leader in the 21st century, it still has the world’s strongest military and maintains bases throughout the world. Moreover, it has a proven track record over the last 100 years of enabling its citizens to enjoy a vibrant, rich cultural society in which world-leading film, music, and art can flourish.
However, when United States’ LMtPR is applied to Japan, the opposite problem occurs in comparison to when the United Kingdom’s past LMtPR is used. At the United States’ LMtPR, Japan’s population would become 13 million. At nearly one-tenth of its current population, such a drastic decline would obviously have severe implications for its ability to defend itself and its economy. While it may be able to achieve some quality of life improvements that having a less crowded country comes with, these improvements may be moot when the potential negative effects such a drastic drop in population would have on its economy are considered.
Therefore, data from more countries need to be examined to help identify a population floor target for Japan which may enable it to maintain its sovereignty, world power status, and quality of life. Thus, this current study will answer the following research questions:
1. What is the LMtPR for countries throughout the world?
2. Does the LMtPR for countries throughout the world provide any insights in regard to whether or not Japan should be considered crowded with its current population?
3. Are there any countries with a similar landmass to Japan that have a vibrant economy, strong world power status, and a high standard of living but with a lower LMtPR than Japan?

Materials and Methods

This study took an action research approach to find countries to compare Japan with regarding population density. First, data from Worldometer (n.d.) for 161 countries’ landmass estimates and United Nations (2019) population estimates for these countries were used. Then, only countries with populations of 4.8 million or more or having a landmass (landmass and water bodies) of 100,000 square kilometres (or both) were considered since Japan was found to have a substantial LMtPR in comparison to other countries, and comparisons with countries that are very small in regard to population or landmass may become skewed. A population of 4.8 million or more was chosen because this is the smallest approximate population of a country in the dataset commonly known as being modern and developed (New Zealand). A landmass of 100,000 square kilometres was chosen because it is approximately the size of a country in the dataset with a similar socio-economic condition to Japan (South Korea). LMtPR was calculated for countries within these parameters and the countries were then ranked.[A1]  After these calculations were made, it was found that 30 countries fell within these parameters. After examining the data further, when economic and world power status was considered, two countries with considerably lower LMtPRs in comparison to Japan’s were then considered for a more in-depth comparison, namely the United States and Germany. These two countries were chosen because, as Japan’s population continues to decline, it would be useful to identify countries that can maintain a strong economy and world power status with a lower LMtPR than Japan has. These countries’ economic and governmental approaches can then be utilised by Japan as models to emulate as the country adjusts to a lower LMtPR.
Admittedly, landmass alone is a simple measure. However, comprehensive data for countries throughout the world with consideration for other factors such as climate, latitude, coastline, habitable land, etc., are either not available or would make this study untenable in regard to its scope and goal of identifying general facts that could lead to new thoughts on Japan’s approach to its declining population issue. However, it is worth noting that there is not a substantial difference in the water body surface area of Japan and Germany, with Japan having 13,400 square kilometres (Knoema, 2021) and Germany having 7,860 square kilometres of water surface (Knoema, 2020), it was chosen. Moreover, as noted in the literature review, Germany and Japan do not have geographic features or climate conditions that make comparing the two countries unsuitable.


Table 1 below shows the LMtPR of the 30 countries that fell within this study’s parametres and provides an answer to research question #1. The countries that have the highest LMtPR on the list are well-known for their significant population densities. Surprisingly, China, a country that is often the focus of any discussion of population, ranks 12th. The data also reveal that Japan is in the top five in regard to persons per square kilometre of landmass; thus, the answer to research question #2 is affirmative, that Japan is a crowded nation in comparison to other countries in the world. An interesting comparison with Japan’s LMtPR is the significantly higher LMtPR of South Korea, a country with a variety of similarities to Japan, including industry, a strong military alliance with the United States, and geographic proximity.

Table 1. The Top 30 Countries in Regard to Persons Per Square Kilometre

The data identified the United Kingdom as a country with similarities with Japan, being an island nation and having a similar level of economic power and political status. However, the data also identified Germany as being quite similar to Japan as well, which also has a substantially lower LMtPR than Japan. There is one aspect of the United Kingdom’s economy that sets it apart from Japan and Germany’s though. The United Kingdom’s manufacturing industry has experienced a significant decline since the 1970s and thus derives much less of its GDP from the production of value-added goods than Germany and Japan do with automobiles and electronics. Instead, financial services are now at the forefront of the nation’s economy.
Thus, the most interesting comparison with Japan from the data in Table 1 above is thus with Germany. It has a similar landmass to Japan and a similar level of development and world power status but ranks much lower at 12th in the list with a population of 83 million. If Japan had a similar LMtPR as Germany, its population would be 88 million. Because Germany has a vibrant economy, strong world power status, and a high standard of living, it is the best answer from the resulting data for research question #3.


With its limited landmass, it is perhaps unrealistic for Japan to aim for a population target such as that of having a similar LMtPR to the United States, and in the past attempts were made to deal with this fact through emigration. Hou and Liu (2019) note Japan’s diaspora to the United States, Canada, and Latin America after the country lifted its rules of disallowing emigration in the 19th century. Japanese living abroad, or日系 [Nikkei], total 3.8 million, with the largest group in Brazil at 2 million. Table 2 below lists the top ten countries Japanese citizens have emigrated to. However, as Table 3 below indicates, Japanese emigration to places such as Brazil has been on the decline for nearly 100 years.

Table 2. Ranking of Countries To Which Japanese Citizens Have Emigrated

Table 3. Japanese Emigration to Brazil (Data Source is CCBJ, 1994)

Thus, this may not be a solution to Japan’s landmass issue. In fact, the trend is actually in reverse now with more and more Japanese-Brazilians immigrating to Japan in recent years (see Table 4 below).

Table 4. Brazilian Immigration to Japan From 1998-2008 (Data Source is Calazans, 2009)

Therefore, a change in mindset may be necessary for Japan to address its population issue. Changes in its approaches to stem the decline or increase its population are clearly required since efforts made over the last 20 years have not succeeded. A change in mindset may also be necessary because the country may need to simply accept the reality that its economy is not able to sustain population stabilisation or growth at its current levels without some new approach or development occurring. Moreover, acceptance that the attitudes of its citizens toward the past’s traditional family structure have changed may also need to be acknowledged. With these realisations in mind, new approaches need to be formulated to address the country’s population issue.
It should also be noted that cultural aspects may affect its citizens’ ability successfully to emigrate to other countries. For example, in comparison to large-scale Chinese or European emigration to countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia in the past and recent years, Japan seems to struggle to achieve such diaspora in comparison. So, if the country’s goal is to expand its power, its landmass may not be suitable and, additionally, its culture may not currently be malleable enough to enable this to happen through emigration as easily as it was for the mass immigration waves of citizens from a variety of areas to the United States in the past two centuries.
The most interesting data that were revealed from this study were the LMtPR of Germany in comparison to Japan because of its similar landmass, industries, and world power status, but a significantly smaller population at 83 million. Germany shares a variety of industries with Japan, such as the manufacture of automobiles and electronics. Moreover, just like their Japanese competitors, many German manufacturers are known for their quality and advanced technology. Additionally, some are similar in size to Japan’s companies. For instance, the Volkswagen Group is the world’s top automobile manufacturer by revenue in 2021 at 254 billion dollars, with the Toyota Motor Corporation a close second with 249 billion dollars of revenue. As for electronics, German companies such as Siemens are similar in size to famous Japanese brands as well. In 2022, Siemens had a market capitalisation of 98 billion dollars while Sony stood at 111 billion dollars. Similar to Japan, Germany also relies on other countries for defense. Also similar to Japan is the fact that since World War II the country has never been invaded or had any serious threats of invasion. Moreover, Germany maintains a world power status at a level similar to Japan. Just like Japan, it is a core G7 member and it plays a regular, strong role in international politics with a similar influence to Japan. Furthermore, Germany ranks 9th in the world in regard to quality of life while Japan ranks 13th (U.S. News, n.d.). In addition, Japanese and German companies are similar in size ratio. Japan’s economy consists of 99.7% small- or medium-sized companies, 68.8% of employment, and 52.9% of the economy (Murakami, 2022). Quite similarly, Germany’s economy has a similar makeup, with 99.5% of jobs being at small- or medium-sized companies but key differences include the fact that Germany’s small- or medium-sized companies account for slightly less of total employment (57.6%) and a significantly small ratio of the total economy (34.4%) (Elhafed, 2022). For all of these reasons, the solution to Japan’s population issue may be for it to look to Germany and its current and future economic and governing policies because the similarities between the two countries lend to a high potential for emulation.
It is important to note that, for over 30 years now, Japan’s economy has been stagnant, and no amount of quantitative easing, near-zero interest rates, or other measures have been able to revive it. In 1989, 13 of the top 20 companies in the world by market capitalisation were from Japan, with 6 being from the United States (Steiger, 2014). In 2022, 15 of the top 20 companies in the world by market capitalisation were from the United States, with Toyota (ranked 38th) being the only Japanese company in the top 100 (Companies Market Cap, 2022).
This stagnation began with Japan’s economic bubble bursting in 1989, which led to a freeze on new hiring for many years thereafter. Thus, a whole generation of college graduates was left without stable incomes, Japan’s so-called ‘lost generation.’ Exacerbating the problem is Japanese companies’ tradition of preferring fresh college graduates. Thus, once hiring resumed, members of the lost generation were overlooked and new graduates took their place in the workforce. Stuck with unstable, low-paying jobs, this generation is currently the typical age when people have children and make significant purchases, such as cars or homes. Thus, the economy is now suffering because this generation lacks purchasing power. Governmental guidelines and/or incentives for companies to focus on hiring such individuals could potentially be one way to help Japan’s foundering economy.
In addition to Japan’s general economic issues over the last 30 years, there are some significant differences between the economies of Germany and Japan of which policymakers in the Japanese government would need to be cognisant if they intend to try to emulate Germany’s economic strength with a smaller Japanese population [1][1]. First, although Japan is well-known throughout the world for the products it exports, in reality, its exports were only 17.4% of its GDP in 2019 while Germany’s exports were 46.6% of its GDP in the same year (The World Bank, n.d.-a). Another important statistic is the fact that Japan’s debt was 238% of its GDP in 2019 (Trading Economics, n.d.), while Germany’s was only 58.9% (Country Economy, n.d.).
Yet another difference between Japan and Germany is Japan’s lack of foreign investment. Japan’s inward foreign direct investment (FDI) as a percentage of gross domestic product was a mere 4.4% in 2019 while Germany’s was 24.8%, and the developed economies’ average was 41.8% (UNCTAD, 2022). A number of sources have cited similar reasons for this lack of inward foreign investment. Santander Trade (2022) described the deficiency as stemming from restricted international competition because Japanese companies have a “very insular local business culture” and “prefer to do business (especially M&A transactions) with known partner companies.” VisualPolitik EN (2022) mentions that foreign takeovers of Japanese companies are something that is met with dread across the nation. It is worth noting that Nukaga (2006) asks two pertinent questions in regard to this: “Is xenophobia determined mostly by the threat of economic competition, felt most acutely among less educated individuals? Or, is it a lack of contact with foreigners, which the less educated are least likely to experience?” (p. 193). In her study, she expounds on sources of xenophobic attitudes in Japan and found that age, interaction, friendship/family ties, and education were significant factors and that these were consistent with similar attitudes in Western countries. Therefore, the lack of FDI may not be from a nefarious source but rather due to limited exposure to foreign people and cultures which in turn has created guarded attitudes toward foreign investment.
Some researchers feel that this corporate culture is exacerbated by the existence of Japan’s keiretsu, a group of 26,000 parent companies and 56,000 subsidiaries that have interconnected business ties and employ 18 million people (nearly a third of the Japanese workforce). They believe that the ties between these companies and the substantial size of the group’s scope result in companies not being fully independent of each other, which creates entry barriers for newcomers and hinders competition (Kuznetsova, 2013, p. 1571). Furthermore, since joining the OECD in 1964, Japan has instituted policies that prevented multinational corporations from buying Japanese companies. At the time, Japanese automobile companies such as Toyota feared being taken over by the much bigger General Motors and Ford automobile companies (Kuznetsova, 2013). Inward foreign investment may drop even lower in the future due to the fact that in 2020, the Japanese government modified its Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act, lowering the threshold in which a foreign transaction requires the approval of the government from 10% of shares to a mere 1% (Ministry of Finance, Japan, 2020).
Thus, if Japan wants to emulate Germany’s successes as its population declines, it may need to boost its exports and lower its debt. It also needs to open itself up more to foreign investment, either through policy changes or through educational efforts to lessen any xenophobic attitudes through increased positive contact with foreigners as Nukaga (2006) suggests. By taking these steps, Japan may be able to achieve a similar level of economic success in comparison to Germany, which may in turn lead to quality of life improvements. As stated earlier, in regard to quality of life throughout the world Japan is ranked 13th while Germany is ranked 9th. However, there is a stark contrast in regard to the level of happiness reported by the citizens of these two countries. In regard to how happy people are, Germany ranked 13th in the world while Japan ranked 55th (World Population Review, 2022). Changes in its economic approach may help Japan make gains in this regard.
There are also cultural similarities between Germany and Japan which may enable Japan’s society to operate at a similar level of success with a much lower population. Culturally, Germany is known for its strictness (Baur, 2020) and perhaps this aspect of its culture enables its companies to be successful throughout the world because of this cultural aspect’s effect on its work culture. Japan is similarly known for its strictness in culture, and this directly informs its approach to work (Franklin, 2017). Both countries are well known for their attention to detail, the importance they place on things being orderly, punctuality, and frequency of meetings in the workplace, so there is the possibility that there is a connection between this aspect of culture and economic success that will enable Japanese companies to continue to strive with a smaller population in the future. Thus, data regarding Germany’s LMtPR indicate that it may be possible for Japan’s population to drop to as low as 88 million while still maintaining its economy, world power status, and quality of life. Nawata (2007) predicts that at the current rate of decline, Japan’s population will drop to 95 million by 2050. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that measures can be taken to adjust to a lower population since estimates predict there to be at least 30 years before Japan will reach such a population target.


The results of this study indicate that the answer to Japan’s population issue may simply be acceptance of the decline and adjustment of its policies and goals. Data revealed that Japan’s declining population may not in fact be a ‘demographic time bomb’ as Miranda (2018), but a mere correction that, once complete, may not have significant negative effects on the nation as a whole as long as proper steps are taken by the government and its citizens to adjust to it. If a country with a similar landmass to Japan, and cultural and geopolitical similarities such as Germany can maintain major international industries and wield strong geopolitical power, then it is not unreasonable to assume that Japan can do the same. If Japan’s population continues to decline to such a level as Germany’s LMtPR, then only with proper planning and adjustments by its government and citizens can it be successful in dealing with it.
Future research is thus needed for such planning. It may be beneficial if the Japanese government plans for the possibility of its population dropping to an LMtPR ratio similar to Germany’s by reducing its debt-to-GDP ratio, increasing its percentage of exports to GDP, and creating more opportunities for inward foreign direct investment by reversing recent policies and improving upon its citizens’ view of foreign investment through increases in positive contact with foreigners. It may also be prudent for Japan to refocus its current efforts from aiming to stabilise or increase its population via incentives for its citizens to have more children or immigration to other approaches such as focusing on sustainable industries in which rural areas with small populations can support themselves with, such as tourism.
This study has relied on current and past raw population data regarding LMtPR, immigration, emigration, and world power status, while also considering geographic and weather conditions that may affect habitability and thus skew LMtPR. The analysis conducted points to the possibility that Japan’s population could continue to decline to a particular point while still maintaining its current level of sovereignty, industry, and quality of life. However, its declining population is a hot-button issue that touches a raw nerve with many throughout Japan, and thus promoting the concept that it may not be a problem at all may be met with emotional responses. Thus, one should only consider the data and past/current realities when dealing with such a complex issue. Moreover, this study’s concept should at least be considered, since, to date, no other measures have been successful at curbing the decline. The results of this study should also be considered as a worst-case scenario. However, by considering the similarities between Japan and Germany, this ‘worst-case scenario’ seems to point to there being no cause for alarm as the population continues to decline as long as proper measures are taken by governmental entities and practical realisations occur within the mindsets of the Japanese people about the potential effects of this decline or lack thereof.


1. Note that pre-COVID-19 statistics are intentionally provided to give a more realistic picture of typical economic conditions.


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About the Author

James Rogers is a tenured associate professor at Meijo University in Japan. He has been published over 40 times in journals or books, and has spoken at over 30 conferences throughout the world. His research mainly focuses on language education for Japanese learners and cultural topics such as race, linguistic identity, and population issues. He has been published in international, top-tier journals such as Studies in Second Language Acquisition, English for Specific Purposes, and Language Teaching Research. Dr. Rogers has also created a series of English learning smartphone apps that have been downloaded over 200,000 times. He has a wide variety of research interests that mainly focus on Japan, from topics related to linguistics, such as C.A.L.L. and corpus linguistics, to topics such as race, population, and culture.

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