Japan has a population of a little over 126.7 million, making it the seventh most populous nation after China, India, Russia, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil. The overall population density that approaches one thousand persons per sq. mile is exceeded by only a few countries. In terms of agricultural density—that is m terms of its cultivated area—it is nearly four and a half times that of the overall density figure, that necessitates the need for a part of the food supply to be derived from the fishery products, and supplemented by grain and food imports.
The density figures, however, mask the fact that a large part of the Japanese population resides on a very small area of land within a small country, particularly in the three great metropolitan regions on Tokyo-Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka- Kobe-Kyoto, in which a little less than half of Japan’s entire population resides. In striking contrast to the urban congestion, almost one-third of Japan has a population density of one person per sq mile. Most of this includes areas of steep slopes, volcanic rocks, or unusable soils.
Traditionally, Japanese lived m clustered villages, and only few m dispersed settlements. Only since the 1950s when Japan shifted her cultural focus from agriculture to industrialization there has been a massive redistribution of population from the rural areas, which peaked in the late 1960s and stabilized in the 1970s and 1980s. The process drained the rural areas of young people in their productive and most fertile age groups. In the late 1960s the urban share of the population was close to fifty percent.
In general, Japan has experienced spectacular growth since 1868, reflecting the steadily increasing pace of urbanization. Population numbered close to 33 million, and urbanization was, in all probability, less than 30 percent around 1870. An official count of the population in 1920 yielded the figure of 57 million.
Between 1920 and 1939, the country’s major industrial centers grew substantially and both total population and its urban component gained in massive numbers. During the WWII there was a temporary but marked migration to the rural areas to avoid aerial bombing. But since 1945 there has been a renewal of the population expansion along with the rapidly growing pace of urbanization.
Japan is one of the most urbanized countries in the world and an estimated 78 percent of her population resides in cities or their suburbs. The largest urban area is Tokyo, which with its port of Yokohama and adjacent metro area contains nearly 15 million inhabitants to make it probably the biggest urban sprawl in the world. Another ten cities exceed one million residents. Most of the larger cities are coastally industrial and commercial centers connected to international sources of supply and markets by modern port facilities.
Because of the rapid growth of manufacturing since Second World War, cities face congestion and pollution, but economic development that accompanied Japanese urbanization has brought material prosperity and the pull of economic opportunities in the cities keep pumping more people into the cities.
A striking feature in the modern growth of the Japanese population has been the decline of birth and death rates particularly since World War II. Largely in response to improved birth control measures and health conditions. In 1950 only 5 percent of the Japanese population was age 65 or over.
At the present time, 14 percent of Japan’s population or close to 17.5 million people are over age 65 years and the figure is likely to trend upward. By the year 2000 it may reach 23 percent. The rapidly aging of Japan’s population is obviously fraught with grave social and economic consequences. A major concern it faces in the near future is a shortage of population in the working age groups.
In addition, its top-heavy age structure will inevitably create enormous burdens in pension, and medical costs for its future taxpayers. Low birth (and death) rates have resulted in low population increases; the net reproduction rate is now below one (i.e., fewer than one female child born per woman during her childbearing years) the long-term prospect is for continued decline.
Not enough children are born in the country or likely to be born in the foreseeable future to ensure the long-term stability of the population. The prospect of a declining pool of future taxpayers for sustaining the aging population is thus a major concern for the country.
By the mid 20th century, Japan faced problems of rural overpopulation. It had lost its overseas empire, built with astonishing speed, and had failed to provide an adequate base of supplies or a rich market for its products. It thus turned to industry utilizing and honing the manufacturing techniques and skills it had painstakingly learned from the West.
The rapid rehabilitation of industry which was sheltered during the WWI resulted in the concentration and growth of population in the nation’s principal urban and industrial districts, which lie mostly in the Pacific coastal areas and around the Inland Sea. Consequent to this urbanization trend has been the marked decline of the rural areas.
Most of the adult males migrate to the Pacific coast, and many of those who remain at home periodically leave as temporary laborers in the cities, leaving behind residual populations consisting primarily of the elderly.
During the 1950s Japan’s leadership also took steps to make possible the limitation of population. Legalized abortion and other measures of control, some of which appear harsh by contemporary standards, including the practice of mabiki (or thinning out), a euphemism for female infanticide, produced annual declines in the birthrates. It was quite clear that Japan could control her rate of population growth. It was, undoubtedly, made possible with the demographic consequences of urbanization and modernization.
The real demographic challenge that Japan now faces is its burgeoning welfare system because the cost to the nation of carrying such large numbers of old people appears incalculable. Already some cuts in the welfare system have been made in order to minimize the enormity of a growing problem.