TOKYO — The popular Chinese imagination of Japan has followed along with Japan’s evolution over the past four decades. In the late 1970s, when China started to reform and to open up to the rest of the world, Japan was Asia’s economic power. Then, following the arrival of Japanese animé to China, Japan was the “Kingdom of Animé.” In more recent years, China's neighbor has become a “shopping paradise” which attracts some six and half million visiting consumers each year.

These days, however, the Japanese don't look at their country and see this same happy, pleasant place. Instead, Japan's own sense of itself is increasingly dominated by the anxiety of a not-so-distant future where the country will become a so-called “ghost civilization.” Indeed, the term “ghost city” has quietly become a popular Japanese reference.

A few days ago, a friend who works as an executive for a large company based on the northern island of Hokkaido came to visit me in Tokyo. Over dinner, he laid out his 'Hokkaido collapse theory.' He explained how originally only the Ainu people and animals lived in Hokkaido. But after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese started to immigrate there. "Now," he said, "while the Meiji Restoration marks its 150th anniversary next year, Hokkaido’s population is continuously falling." My friend concluded by saying that if this continues, Hokkaido will collapse and become a "ghostdo," a ghost city.

Yubari City, one of Hokkaido’s important industrial towns, once had a population of 120,000 people. Today, it's only 7,000. Only Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, has not seen its population fall in recent years. All other cities in the region have experienced a drastic demographic depression.

I can recall the amazing things I had heard and experienced on my visit to the island two years ago.

One night, after dining with the mayor of Hokkaido City, we took a cab to the Noboribetsu Hot Spring Resort, a 15-minute drive at a normal driving speed. But our trip that night took 40 minutes because we were only driving 20-30 kilometers per hour.

It was nighttime. There were few cars on the wide highway. The taxi driver explained why he was going below the speed limit: “This area used to have a large population. Now the population has become scarce, so bears and foxes often come down from the mountains. These animals often rush to the roads so I’m obliged to drive slowly." When I recounted this story to my visiting friend from Hokkaido, he told me with a wry smile: “Just the other day, I ran into a deer!”

In fact, the ghost-civilization is not unique to Hokkaido. Last month, the Okawa Village of Kochi Prefecture located on rural Shikoku Island was obliged, in an unprecedented move, to abolish its village council. It’s said that due to a dramatic demographic decrease the council could no longer operate. Now, the 350 adults living in the village simply have to gather directly to discuss the village's affairs. Like Athens in ancient times, Okawa Village is returning to the purest form of democracy.

People roam through North breakwater Dome, Hokkaido, Japan - Photo: bryansjs via Flickr

According to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, by 2040, most of the country’s smaller cities will see a dramatic drop of one-third to one-half of their population. Certain metropolises that look like they're bustling today are going to be turned into ghost cities tomorrow. Japan's overall population of 126 million is projected to drop to 80 million in the next three decades.

If I were a young person living in Japan, I’d probably leave my own country

Behind these statistics is the monumental challenge of Japan’s aging society. When the population falls to 80 million, about 35 million of those will be older than 65 years old. Since the government considers 15-65 year olds to comprise the labor force, one laborer will have to support one elderly person in the future.

One Japanese sociologist has predicted that the social system in Japan can’t possibly be maintained unless personal income tax is doubled to 90%. If I were a young person living in 2040, I’d probably leave my own country. Alternatively, a movement demanding a lower income tax may arise. By this time, fighting in the Japanese parliament will switch from being between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party to being between the ruling elderly and the younger opposition. In brief, Japan is awaiting a turbulent era.

Japan currently has 8 million empty housing units. Because young people normally don't live with their parents, children inherit an additional house or apartment when their parents die. In the past, children would have earned a substantial income by selling the property, but it is a buyer's market now and people are holding on to their properties.

In Japan, a mass of empty houses can’t be sold. An hour’s drive from Tokyo, rows of apartments stand almost completely uninhabited. Predictions suggest that in 15 years Japan will have 20 million empty houses.

While in China, the number of restaurants has been increasing over the past 25 years, Japan is heading in the opposite direction. Restaurants have decreased from 850,000 in 1990 to 350,000 today. In the same period, Japanese wine bars, once quite popular, have dropped from 250,000 to 50,000. The sharp drop in the number of Japan's restaurants and bars points to a drying up of vigor and vitality.

China should heed the lesson of Japan’s ghost-civilization. China has a total number of elderly that is equal to the whole population of Japan, and it is still growing. Japan became rich before becoming an aging society whereas China is aging before spreading its wealth. Indeed, China's future demographic problems may be much worse than Japan has ever faced.


See more from World Affairs here