The importance of the impact of the recent trend of demographic decline, among developed countries, on the emerging state of geopolitics cannot be underestimated. In the past, states were able to overcome the disadvantages of a small population by relying on innovation, technology and strategy, as evidenced by the rise of empires under relatively small states like Great Britain or the Netherlands.  However, with the passage of time, the benefits that a large population could provide to a well organised and clairvoyant state is being increasingly recognized.


Halford Mackinder, the proponent of the Heartland Theory in geopolitics, posits that the idea of fighting strength and economic productivity are implicit advantages which come with the concept of manpower. Large populations, if organized well, can be used to build colossal economies and militaries. In the current era, states which can boost their technology, innovation, economic and military policies with large educated and able populations, can grow and consolidate their power at a considerable rate. Even in this digital age, population remains relevant as a source of national power. Huge populations which are connected to the digital networks, remain the building blocks for generation of Big Data, which feeds into the development of advanced Artificial Intelligence capabilities. The ever-increasing amount of data derived from growing populations and their activities can translate into an efficient and sophisticated state with a rising international profile – China being a perfect example of this. Conversely, a declining demographic ultimately leads to decline of the state’s significance on the international stage. Japan is one of the states whose geopolitical ambitions are at risk due to being at the forefront of this demographic decline.


Currently, Japan is at the fifth stage of demographic transition, which means that the population is still high, but the birth rate has fallen below the death rate. At this point, the population will decline and each subsequent generation will be smaller than the last. This decline in demographic trends led to Japan’s population peaking at 128 million in 2008, and it has been falling since. In order to trace this decline, one must look at how the development of post-war Japan shaped its population trends.


Japan’s Demographic Decline


After the second World War, thanks to close ties to the USA and aggressive income boosting plans by the Japanese government, the state was able to flourish economically. Access to US financial and consumer markets, as well as trade and manufacturing relationships with other states allowed Japan to procure necessary resources and secure their supply lines. This led to a bubble economy where the average citizen experienced stable incomes, access to better housing and health services. This newfound stability meant that there wasn’t a need to have three or four children to increase overall income or/and to protect the family lineage. Divorce rates also increased as focus slowly shifted from family to personal wealth, and happiness with societal transformation. These demographic changes ended up being the trailing fuse to the powder keg that was the fertility rate. After the bubble economy popped when the US withdrew its support after the end of the Cold War, the subsequent economic downturn plunged the state into what some scholars call the ‘Lost Decades’. Stretching from the 1990s to the 2010s, this time period was marked by recessions and bank failures, which created a feedback loop between the demographic and economic decline, each extending and exacerbating the other. This constant social and economic depression had brought down the fertility rate to about 1.4 (births per women) in 2012, significantly lower than the rate of 2.1 (births per women) required to replace the older generations. The median age also doubled to about 47 years old. This led to an aging population and a reduction in the overall working population.


The factors for the falling fertility rate during the ‘Lost Decades’ form a complex web which has stifled the state’s recovery efforts. Due to a lack of natural resources, Japan has always focused on developing its human capital. As a result, loyal, dedicated and preferably skilled workers are favoured above all else. The insistence on such qualities, combined with the rigid nature of Japanese society created a high-pressure environment where the Japanese youth were expected to get a good education and eventually a good job so that they could contribute to society. As more experienced and skilled labour is preferred, a lot of companies employ policies like lifetime employment and obligatory overtime to maximise the productivity they can get out of such employees. This usually means that these veteran employees, who have devoted their lives to the companies to the point of neglecting the other parts of their lives, are retained by the companies. Younger employees end up losing opportunities to such people and increasingly work on temporary contracts, which prevents them from gaining the necessary skills to climb the corporate and social ladder. The decreasing opportunities for the youth and the increasing pressure for the older employees has caused both demographics to be unable to start or maintain relationships, further tanking the birth rate.


The option of increasing the number of women in the workforce faces a set of obstacles. Traditionally rigid and patriarchal, Japanese society places a lot of expectations and pressure on women to get married and become home-makers despite the fact that most of them have primary education. Hence, either due to such pressure or voluntarily, a lot of women don’t enter the workforce or retire early to fulfil these marital expectations. Although the government has tried to improve work-life imbalance with incentives such as leaves for marital reasons, women are still considered temporary workers and are scarcely promoted due to the fact the men in their lives lack work-life balance. The lack of balance from the husband’s side forces the burden of the household back onto the woman and prevents her from devoting the expected amount of time to her work. This imbalance on both sides has increased the number of estranged married couples and subsequently the divorces rates, further pushing down the birth rates.


Another avenue of reducing the burden on the aging and shrinking population are immigration policies. Although such policies are usually used in boosting demographic growth, it does not find favour among the general public in Japan. The state is mostly homogenous in nature and hence the values the people of state holds do not mesh with immigration policies very well. The resultant pushback to resettling foreign labour in the state has made such policies harder to implement.


Instead of flesh and blood workers from other states, Japan aims to fulfil the demand for labour with mechanical aid. Thanks to the high levels of education in the state, fields like robotics have undergone extensive research and development and are being used in various sectors such as manufacturing and even services like hospitality. Although various technological advancements which reduce the dependence on human capital have been implemented, it is only a plug to the demographic problem as an over-reliance on technology will ironically lead to a reduction in innovation and job opportunities.


These characteristics of the Japanese state has contributed to and has been reinforced by the falling fertility rate in the ‘Lost Decades’. Combined with a decreasing mortality rate, thanks to the improvements to the healthcare system with policies like universal health insurance, long term care, community-based care systems etc, has led to slow innovation and reform measures, which has kept the ever-shrinking population stuck in a downward spiral. This demographic decline has sobering implications on Japan’s geopolitical ambitions.


Geopolitical Implications


Japan opened up to the world after 200 years of isolation to find colonial powers establishing control over states too weak to resist them. To survive, and not lose its identity to colonial oppression, the state quickly modernized and built up its military strength. The state quickly realized it needed more land, labour, and resources and hence, sought to expand outwards. The concept of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was conceived to guide and justify Imperial Japan’s expansion. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict observed, a world dominated by Japan would have a hierarchical order with itself on top. Initially, the objectives of the Co-Prosperity Sphere were carried via military means, but after the second World War the state reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse and achieved its immediate geopolitical imperatives through economic might instead. With these imperatives now being endangered by the demographic changes, it would be prudent to understand what they are and the risks to the state if they are undone.


The first goal for Japan was to achieve internal unity and establish central authority of over its own islands. In the 20th Century, this meant establishing control over and extending control from its peripheral islands, such as Okinawa, Senkaku and Kuril Islands. The demographic decline has resulted in a smaller recruitment pool for the Japanese Self Defence Forces (JSDF), who are in charge of the protection of Japan’s peripheries, and as a result, would eventually be forced to spread thin in order to cover these areas. There is also reluctance among recruits to take up postings in these remote locations due to the high rate of urbanization and the depopulation of rural areas. This makes it harder to enforce central authority over these areas and could even lead to disunity.


The next goal is to gain control over the water bodies on its peripheries and control strategic approaches to the home islands. As the island state sits in a geographic hotbed of rivalries  where it holds control over the access to the Pacific Ocean, Japan has had to take several measures to ensure that the approaches to the mainland cannot be compromised. These include preventing South Korea from falling to a hostile power, containing Russia’s access to the Pacific, shoring up defenses against North Korea, countering China’s rise and maintaining alliances with its allies such as the US. All these objectives require diplomatic and military power to achieve. With the state increasingly turining inward and many of its political institutions being theatened by the demographic decline, it will find it harder to achieve these objectives, as it will be able to invest an increasingly smaller amount of personnel due to the population decline. Already the small recruit pool threatens the JSDF’s ability to maintain control over the strategic approaches to the mainland. Participation in joint military exercises with allies or even in peacekeeping missions will be affected as well, which could potentially sour relations with allies and the rest of the international community, isolating from the support they keeping hostile powers from utilizing the vunerable strategic approaches.


The last goal is the accquisition of necessary goods and labour by military or economic means. Most of Japan is covered by mountains, which can be cultivated to an extent, but the main source of food and other agricultural commodities comes from the arable land along the coastal regions of the state. As a result, Japan lacks domestic food supply and the natural resources to maintain a modern populated state and is heavily dependent on exports from other states. The demographic change in the country means that population is shrinking and growing old, with most young people heading towards cities for better job prospects. This means that, since the average age of in rural communities is above 65 years old and the fact that these communities are agriculturally based, the extinction of these communities will jeopardise Japan’s food security. Hence, there has been an increased reliance on Japan’s import of essential food materials from places like the US and Africa. These supply lines of essential materials are vulnerable to being shut down by hostile forces in the neighbourhood and hence, the potential loss of strategic forces to protect these routes could leave Japan isolated and vulnerable.




As it stands, Japan is projected to lose about a million people from its workforce every year. This stark reality has not been slowed down by the various policies that the Japanese government has implemented. From incentives for women to return to the workplace, to investing in robotics to rural revitalization programmes, these measures have yet to be fully realized and their effects have been minimal at best. Thus, the state is at risk of losing its influence in the Indo-Pacific region because of the inevitable decline of its military and economic heft. Japan may consequently be left vulnerable in its own neighbourhood. Japan is still in a position to reverse the situation; and if internal motivations aren’t enough, external pressures may do the job. This is due to the Japan’s nature as an ‘earthquake society’ i.e. a society that frequently experiences social and political upheaval if external political, military or social stimuli is strong enough.  Therefore, if there is a drastic change in the world order, that will suffice as enough external motivation for Japan to adjust and adapt to its new reality.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.