5 incredible data points that explain Japan’s aging population — and why it should concern everyone

TOKYO — In 2022, Japan sold more adult diapers than baby diapers. Surprised? Stunned? You shouldn’t be. That has been the case in Japan for the last 10 years.

If your first inclination when reading this is to laugh, you shouldn’t. While caring for an aging population is Japan’s biggest worry today, it figures to be the biggest problem for other nations tomorrow — the result of global trends of higher life expectancies and lower fertility rates.

In Japan, the country not only is trending to a time when it will not have enough workers — it already is experiencing a situation where there are not enough owners.

The economic impact — and, thus, societal impact — will be huge.

The worst part: Japan sees it coming and has not found a way to stop it.

In 2019, Japan’s trade ministry projected that, by 2025, around 630,000 profitable businesses could close up shop simply because the owner cannot find someone to take over. It’s a situation that has the potential to cost the economy $165 billion and as many as 6.5 million jobs.

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a story on a farmer who couldn’t find a taker for his farm, even though there was no cost to do so.

Members of the 63-person delegation on the New Jersey East Asia Economic Mission were given a presentation on the issue. Here are some of the incredible data points that were revealed.

  1. Over 80 — and over 65

For the first time ever, more than 1 in 10 people in Japan are now age 80 or older. In addition, data also shows 29.1% of the 125 million population is age 65 or older — also a record. The second stat means Japan has the oldest population, as determined by the United Nations. (Niger, where the median age is under 15, has the youngest population.)

  1. Silver Tsunami, part II

The life expectancy is just under 85. Only places such as Monaco, Hong Kong and Macao are higher. Because of it, the older population is expected to equal the working-age population in 40-50 years, certainly an unstainable situation.

  1. Dropping population

The Year of the Fire Horse worry

Children born in the Year of the Fire Horse are believed to be born with bad luck — and be bad news. Luckily for Japan, the Fire Horse is the 43rd combination of the sexagenary cycle, which means it rarely occurs. But, when it does, its impact is devastating.

In 1966, the last time it occurred, the birth rate dropped by approximately 25%. It then returned to the previous level the following year.

The bad news for the already slow-to-conceive Japanese? The Year of the Fire Horse returns in 2026.

Japan’s population is dropping by about 750,000 people per year. Around 2011, the population hit its peak at approximately 121 million people. According to most projections, Japan’s population probably is going to shrink another 25% or so over the next 50 years.

  1. Fertility rate

Japan’s total fertility rate was 1.34 in 2022 (TFR is the average number of children that would be born to a female over their lifetime). In 2022, the yearly birth rate fell below 800,000 for the first time since records have been kept back in 1899. (South Korea had the lowest fertility rate in 2022, an alarming 0.78.) Efforts to reverse these trends (more child care, tax incentives, etc.) have had little impact.

  1. Immigration

Only about 3 million foreigners live in Japan — that’s roughly 2.5% of the population. By comparison, foreigners make up approximately 15% of the population of other advanced economies. The government is encouraging more immigration, as immigrants certainly would be used to care for the aging population. The movement does not appear to have a similar support among the population.