Demographics of Japan

There was a time in the 1980s when Japan’s GNP was 60% of the United States and people were talking about Japan’s economy outgrowing the United States by the year 2000, 2010 or 2020…but in our lifetime. Well, I am still alive and they have not. Right now, Japan’s GNP is about 25% of the United States (IMF 2017 figures) and it does not look like they are going into any extended economic boom any time soon. Now, this talk in the 1980s was understandable if one took a straight line of the Japanese economic growth over the previous couple of decades, and compared it the U.S. economic growth of say, the 1970s. And…if you assumed those two lines would continue unchanged for the next few decades, you could get there. That is obviously not what happened. Japan’s place as the booming economic challenger was replaced by the “Asian Tigers” and then by the Peoples Republic of China. Japan’s current GDP is growing at 1.7% a year (2017). One of the several underlying reasons for this slow growth is due to their shortages in workforce, caused by their demographics.

The population of Japan as of the 2017 census is 127 million people (126,672,000). It is the tenth most populous country in the world (just after Russia). They remain the third richest country in the world (3rd in GNP) after the United States and China.

In 1985 their population was 121 million. This is not much growth. Mostly the population is getting older and grayer. In 2012, 24% of the population was over 65 and it is projected to rise to almost 40% by 2050. The good news is that Japan has the second longest overall life expectancy of any country in the world at 83.5 years. Since 2010 Japan has had a net population loss caused by falling birth rates and almost no immigration. Its fertility rate is 1.41 children per woman (2012), which is by far the lowest figure of any of the countries we have discussed. This is an improvement from 2001-2005, when it was 1.32.

Oddly enough, Japan controlled its population in the previous two centuries. Japanese population remained around 30-35 million people for around 150 years, from the early 1700s (their first census was in 1721). This is unusual, extremely unusual as it was not caused by any natural or man-made disaster. It appeared to be caused by a culture of family planning that simply resulted in the population remaining relatively steady. I don’t know enough about Japanese history to know why this developed, but it is trend that you see in almost no other country in the world in the 1800s. Just to make everyone uncomfortable, apparently this population control was helped by “infanticide” (mabiki).

Japan is a country that is not very encouraging for immigration. It is 98.5% Japanese, 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese and 0.6% Other (in 2011). One of those “other” is now Geoffrey Clark, one of our guest bloggers. He has just moved to Japan for work and will be returning to blogging soon.

Japan really had not relied on immigration as part of their response to declining population. This is also unusual. As a result their demographic “pyramid” has developed a really uncomfortable shape. This is about as close as you are going to get to just flipping the pyramid upside down.

In the bigger picture, this shows the impact of controlled de-population on a country’s demographics (and economy). This is the alternative to allowing large scale immigration. Every country will need to address this as their fertility rates drop below 2. It is estimated that in 2050 the population of Japan will be 109 million (2017 UN figures, medium variant). This compares to 402 million for the United States (or 396 million using the 2017 UN medium variant figures). Right now the per capita income of Japan is $38,440 compared to $59,501 for the U.S. (IMF 2017 figures). If the per capita income remains below the United States, then this means the GDP of Japan could well decline to being below a fifth of the United States. This is a very different picture than the estimates that they would economically surpass the U.S. in 2020.

Final thoughts:

                 Japanese             United States           Ratio

Year          Population          Population                U.S./Japan

1860          > 32 million           31 million                  0.97

1900             44 million           76 million                  1.72

1940             73 million            132                          1.64

1980           117                       227                          1.94

2020           127                       334                          2.63

2050           109                       396                          3.63


1860 was 7 years after Commodore Perry entered Edo Bay, which lead to the opening of Japan for trade.

1900 was when the U.S. and Japan were on good terms.

1940 was the year before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. and Japan went to war.


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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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  1. “Its fertility rate is 1.41 children per woman (2012), which is by far the lowest figure of any of the countries we have discussed. This is an improvement from 2001-2005, when it was 1.32.”

    Minor issue:

    In times in which women decide to get their first child later, the fertility rate, which is calculated by analysing the actual crosssection of the femal population in respect to number of children, is too low.
    (See discussion in Germany where the difference is almost 0.2 children IIRC).

    This of course does not change the fact, that Japan will see a rapidly shrinking population without immigration and the economic tasks (debt/capita is very interesting) are demanding.

      • Yes. However, with a population that may shrink fast the per capita/worker debt increases and it is not clear whether Japan can cover the future demand with internal debt.

        Then the resulting question becomes what increasing interest rates on the global market will do to Japan.

  2. And Japan has made the right choice of not having large-scale immigration from cultures (Africans and Middle Easterners in general) that are totally incompatible with Japanese way of life. Or to be honest, incompatible with any form of civilized way of life. Mr. Lawrence is surely familiar with Tatu Vanhanen’s research of the link between IQ of populations and their economic prosperity. And then a look on U. S. crime rates tell us the harsh reality of having an African population within a civilized society (=the 13 % African segment commits 50 % of serious crime).

    And then the nightmare of MENA immigration in Europe!

    • I do not think that IQ was ever accepted as a scientific tool for measuring intelligence? There is a correlation between wealth and educational levels though.
      Japan is a homogenous society, but it does have (little) immigration and accepts foreign workers (to some extent), these however are exposed to intense racism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism. I think the probem is far more complex than the dichotomy we are usually facing but basically, migration works better if it is intracultural or based on compatibility. There is a greater Apartheid in various nations, such as South Africa and France, but I am curious as to how South America (Brazil in particular) fares with these problems, considering that the vast majority of slaves were transferred there.

      • I think Brazil is another example of heterogenous population generating massive poverty and crime. Just compare Brazilian society to e.g. Uruguay.

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