California Forum

How sex could save Japan

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk to the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday for a joint news conference. For the past decade, Japan has seen its population dropping steadily, and that’s a problem.
President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk to the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday for a joint news conference. For the past decade, Japan has seen its population dropping steadily, and that’s a problem. The Associated Press

Survival was the topic of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s summit last week with President Barack Obama. It was not stated as such, but talks were about long-term economic and military survival for a Japan operating in a world of growing threats and rising powers. But in an odd twist, Japan’s survival has less to do with corporate boardrooms or defense operations centers and more to do with that surreptitious situation room: The bedroom.

Japan is facing one of the greatest post-war crises in history. The Land of the Rising Sun is aging its way to extinction. For the past decade, Japan has seen its population dropping steadily. This is a result not only of a drop in birth rate, but also a lack of fresh blood in the form of immigrants. In 2013, Japan’s government reported a record reduction of 244,000 people – roughly the number of residents in Madison, Wis.

By contrast, the United States is a young and dynamic country. The U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950 and may have recently added another 5 million immigrants to census reports with the stroke of Obama’s executive-order pen. But the riches of youth and vigor are not a given for most post-industrialized nations in the world. In fact, the United States is both an exception and an aberration.

Social scientists have long identified a demographic trend where the richer and more educated a nation becomes, the lower its fertility rate. Wealth and schooling are not the cause of dropping birth rates, but economic success often translates into evaporating populations. Add health care improvements, extended lifespans and changing family attitudes to the mix, and you have a number of populations that are getting older by the day.

Why are Americans exceptional? It’s not that they enjoy sex more than other countries do. According to a survey conducted by the condom manufacturer Durex, Greeks have the most frequent intimate relations, while the Japanese have the least frequent. America’s numbers aren’t too shabby, with a higher percentage of Americans stating they are happier with their sex lives than the global average.

Despite inadequacies or exceeded expectations in bedroom antics, the result of these liaisons is not productive enough to sustain our allied nations. This is hardly the first time such a challenge has hit America’s friends. Nor the first time an ally considered and used governmental policies to promote population increases. After the devastation of both world wars, France had an official policy encouraging repopulation, continued today with a series of tax deductions, child allowances, and other financial and social incentives. It’s worked, so Japan has sought the advice of France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies.

Australia, too, had its own policy under the “populate or perish” moniker. This included a surge of immigrants from the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries. Those who migrated to Australia following World War II received financial incentives. Many moved there permanently, leading to a population boom.

Innovatively, clever and patriotic “Spies” travel company of Denmark recently launched the “Do It For Denmark” campaign, which gives couples an “ovulation discount” for vacations and the chance to win three years of baby supplies and a child-friendly vacation if they can prove they conceived while on holiday.

Struggling against immigration pressures and without a comprehensive approach to the population problem, it is no comfort to the Japanese that the challenges they face are neither new, nor unique. That country has toughed it out through the post-90s economic downturn and an increasingly elderly and retiring population. Twenty-five percent of Japan’s population is age 65 or older. By 2060, the government predicts that statistic will have jumped to 40 percent.

Japan also is not the only nation needing youthful replenishment. The former Soviet Union has seen a shrinking population along with lower life expectancy ever since the collapse of the communist regime. In the past few years, Russia’s prospects have begun looking up, with a positive demographic trend. Depending on whom you ask, they have also just added about 2.2 million Crimeans to their ranks. However, data suggests that the death rate in Russia outpaces the birth rate, which poses a problem for their new demographic optimism.

Like the French, the Kremlin, too, is using incentives to encourage revitalized procreation. In a revamp of a Stalin policy, Russia confers “The Medal of the Order of Parental Glory,” an award given to married parents with four or more children. In the old Soviet days, the “Hero Mother” medals were given to especially fecund women who worked to bring back a population devastated by World War II.

Free diapers and government commendations, however, may not be enough to stimulate growth everywhere. All the tea in China may not be enough incentive to deal with that country’s demographic time bomb. Despite all the ballyhoo about its 1.4 billion population, the “one child” policy and an expanding middle class, China’s people are clearly more concerned about material wealth than Marxist socioeconomics, reinforcing the fact that for couples, family planning is also financial planning. Perhaps Beijing does not require larger families for its success today; nevertheless, at some point China must also confront the question of whether it can grow older without a consequential reduction in productivity or the ability to support an ever aging population.

Germany sits firmly in the troubled economic behemoth category shared with Japan and China. Could the European continent’s most successful economy be in even better shape if it could pump out people the way it cranks out cars? Perhaps. A dark history of Nazi-era eugenics, however, makes the topic radioactive and the country’s demographic challenge is popularly referred to in economic euphemism. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought 16 million new people to their country, not to mention the additional territory of the former German Democratic Republic, and a national reprieve from difficult population discussions.

German reunification was more an accounting trick than a real population increase, however, and it has ceased to pay off as the growth rate and aging demographics are slowing the one-time benefit of incorporating land and people. In fact, were it not for the European Union policy of open internal borders combined with a previous “Gastarbeiter” (guest worker) program and contemporary expedited immigration processes, the working population would be in much worse shape than it appears – even with only 4.8 percent of unemployment in the country. The rise in foreign workers, however, has also led to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiments and a far-right politics that promotes a “Germany for Germans.”

Inevitably, conversations about population quickly go beyond economics and reach into the highly controversial issues of birth control and national ethnic or religious identities. The size of a population has always been considered a measure of a nation’s material power, so nationalist leaders and religious figures regularly exhort the need for replenished, youthful and ethnically “pure” societies; Russians privilege Russians, Japanese privilege Japanese. Multi-ethnic, multicultural societies like the United States are not the norm.

In contrast to the European continent’s high death-rate depopulation, the Americas – North, Central and South – fare well when it comes to reproduction. And yet, not every rise in pregnancy corresponds to increased prosperity. Too often, more people simply means more mouths to feed. Pope Francis has praised large families, but also encouraged adherents of his faith to use church-approved natural methods of birth control and even startled some faithful by stating that Catholics need not breed “like rabbits.”

Birth control is a charged issue in every nation, but a common misperception is that the Catholic Church – or the Christian faith in general – is at the forefront of the fight. In decidedly non-Christian Turkey, for example, the head of state has nearly declared birth control a crime. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently railed against the “treason of birth control” in his pursuit of a more regionally assertive and growing Turkey. Contraception as treason leaves no room for confusion.

At the same time, it’s not just church doctrine that has maternity wards working overtime. Dramatic advances in food production are keeping more people sustained and alive, hugely contributing to our global numbers. During the Golden Age of Greece, there were about 100 million human beings on Earth – roughly the population of modern-day Ethiopia. At the start of World War II, there were only 2.3 billion of us. In the last three generations, the population of our planet has grown to more than 7 billion and, at the current growth rate, is expected to hit 8 billion by 2024! To paraphrase author William Gibson, the world’s population is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Global overpopulation will continue to put stress on global resources. Today, a combination of unevenly distributed population and climate change constitute the most serious threat to human existence in our species’ history. Despite an increased ability to produce food, our planet still faces sustenance-distribution challenges and diminishing resources. One in 9 people go to bed hungry each night. An unacceptable global reality.

More acceptable is the knowledge that simply increasing Japan’s population with more babies will not solve its myriad fiscal and social problems in the short run. But more sex in Japan couldn’t hurt. If our ally to the east continues to get smaller and older, sunset could come shockingly soon in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.