Population Decrease: Put the Brakes on Decline of Vitality of Regional Areas before It’s Too Late

Populations are declining and aging at the same time across Japan. The reality that local communities are shrinking must be faced, and a mechanism to maintain administrative services and the economy must be formulated.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has released a set of population projections by region, showing projected population changes by prefecture and municipality over the next three decades, based on national projections in April.

According to the projections, Japan’s overall population will decrease by about 21 million from 2020 to a total of 104.68 million in 2050. Of the nation’s 47 prefectures, 46 of them — excluding only Tokyo — are projected to see their populations decline from 2020.

There are 11 prefectures, including Akita, Aomori, Iwate and Kochi, where the population will decrease by more than 30% from 2020, based on the projections.

If the number of active-age members of society decreases due to population decline, society will lose its vitality and regional areas will decline. It will become difficult to manage infrastructure such as roads, water supplies and sewer systems. Closures and mergers of elementary and junior high schools will also have to proceed.

Efforts should be made to fit to local conditions, such as using drones to inspect aging infrastructure and utilizing remote online medical services.

In order to maintain administrative services into the future, it is essential to cooperate on a wider scale beyond the boundaries of municipalities and prefectures. Further municipal mergers may be an option.

To secure workers for rural area industries, there is a movement to establish specific regional development business cooperatives, in which small and midsize companies invest to introduce migrants to various types of work, such as farming in the summer and tourism in the winter. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 92 such cooperatives have been established nationwide.

The aim of such moves is to enable younger generations to work year-round in areas where jobs are unevenly distributed by season, and to encourage them to settle in those areas. It would be effective to expand such measures to still more regions.

It is also important to strengthen measures against the declining birth rate. The town of Nagi, Okayama Prefecture, has made out-of-pocket payments of medical expenses for children free of charge and provides financial support for families whose children do not attend nursery schools. As a result, the town’s total fertility rate recovered to 2.95 in 2019, far exceeding the central government target of 1.8.

Using such successful cases for reference, an environment must be created in which young people can feel at ease having and raising children.

For a while, there were views that migration to rural areas would increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the overconcentration of population in Tokyo would be corrected. But in the end, the trend of young people moving to Tokyo for higher education and employment remained unchanged.

Tokyo, where housing and education costs are high, cannot be called an easy place to raise children. In fact, its fertility rate is lower than that of any other prefecture.

In considering measures to combat the declining birth rate, control of the influx of people to Tokyo is a challenge that should not be avoided.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 30, 2023)