Japan’s New Demographic Paradigm – Towards Society 5.0

By Bruce Marshall

It doesn’t take too much analysis to come to the conclusion that Japan has the highest percentage of elderly citizens compared to any other country in the world. Off the back of a post-World War II baby boom, Japan reached peak population of 128 million people in 2010. Since that peak approximately 1.34 million less people now reside in Japan and trends suggest that the population decline is only going to continue. Without intervention, forecasts predict the population to shrink to 88 million people by the year 2060, a potential decrease of 40 million people in 50 years!
Currently 27.4% of the population is aged over 65. Conversely only 12.3% of the current population  is under the age of 15 with the balance of the population between 16-65 making up the remaining 60%. By comparison Australia’s population is made up of 18.9% (0-14), 66.2% (15-64) and 14.9% (65+).

Japan’s new demographic paradigm is having  all sorts of impacts on the traditional economic and social models. Most notably, the shrinking workforce is forcing the government and industry to look at new ways to use robotics and automation to not only keep the economy chugging along, but more importantly to help care and support the ever increasing retired/senior sector of society. The impacts of the social change are being most harshly felt in the rural and regional areas of Japan with most young people being attracted to the lure of big-city life in one of Japan’s many large urban centres. This is having a dramatic impact on population numbers and the ongoing viability of many small communities is being brought into question.

It is an unprecedented scenario, and the way Japan handles it will provide a wealth of learning to the rest of the world. The government is being optimistic and see it as a chance to drive change that will see the country evolve into Society 5.0 which is Japan’s vision for a human-centred society that will represent the next evolution of human-kind. There’s a lot to unpack in that future vision, but first let’s look at how Japan got to its current situation.


There are a number of reasons contributing to the ‘explosion’ in seniors in Japan with the increased life expectancy of citizens being the most obvious.

According to the World Health Organisation, on average Japanese people are now expected to live until 84.2 years (Men 81.1 years, and women 87.1 years.) and the trend is going up. The following tables illustrate the effect of the baby boomer population over the past 70 years, and clearly show the tapering-off of the population in recent years.


Another key factor in all of this is the decline in the Japanese birth rate. As with many modern countries, families these days tend to be smaller, more women are working longer before starting families (if indeed they do), and more and more people are deciding to avoid taking on the challenge and responsibilities of becoming parents.

Japan’s Births Vs Deaths 1950 – 2008

The chart above shows the decline in babies being born as a comparison to the annual death-rate. In recent years, deaths have out-numbered births and with minimal foreign migrant intakes, you don’t need to be a genius to realise that the population can only continue to decrease in this situation.


Japan’s social makeup is different to most countries with many unique idiosyncrasies, though that too is beginning to change. The traditional social model was that once married, the man of the family was expected to be the provider while the wife would quit their jobs to stay at home and raise the children. In addition to this, the eldest son of the family was expected to live with, and care for his parents as they age in exchange for inheriting the family house and becoming the head of the family. This model can still be seen all over Japan, though it is definitely being challenged.

As a westerner looking in, the most obvious flaw in the tradition is the inherent gender bias which assumes that females will not desire a professional career and will be happy to play second fiddle while the husband provides. In recent years this has certainly been challenged by Japanese working females with many career women taking it up to their male counterparts. Indeed, the government is encouraging more women into the workforce to help cover the labour shortage. However with limited child support and workplaces that provide little to no support for female staff taking leave to start families, many women are left with making the choice of career or family. The declining birth rate suggests that many are making the choice to work.

The other recent dynamic entering Japanese society is the social acknowledgment and gradual acceptance of homosexuality as an option. There is still a massive gap in this space compared to western countries, but if pop-culture is a reasonable measure, the number of openly gay and/or transgender celebrities gracing the TV screens has increased dramatically over recent years.


A key element that makes up Japanese society is that respect for people older or more experienced than you is embedded into children as soon as they are able to interpret the world. The best example is at school where children can basically categorise all other students into three types:

Senpai: Anyone in a grade above them
Ta-me: Anyone in the same grade level
Kohai: Anyone in a grade lower than them

Kohai are trained (sometimes to a borderline bullying level) that they are subservient to their Senpai. They are expected to use honorific (polite) style Japanese, and in the case of school sporting clubs will be forced to do the ‘dirty jobs’ by their Senpai.

Naturally, as the cycle of years pass through and children advance through the grades they will be entitled to unleash the same level of authority on their younger kohai below them, and so on and so forth.

The one safe haven in all of this is the ‘ta-me’ or the same grade students where there are no expectations and students can treat each other equally and respect is earned more so on virtue.

This ‘respect for elders’ is embedded into all parts of Japanese society, so in effect, anyone who is older than you is your senpai. The dynamic can change a bit in a work place, where it isn’t necessarily how ‘old’ an individual is, but rather ‘how long’ they have worked at a company for that determines the ‘Senpai – Kohai’ dynamic.

There are a range of positives that come out of this model, and over my years in Japan I have certainly observed that there is genuine respect for older/ageing people.

The flip side of it is that in a work place, staff are rewarded more so on ‘longevity’ rather than raw talent. This dynamic has also created a situation where people are often uncomfortable to ‘upset the apple cart’ as they know that if they can stick around they will be rewarded eventually. It also means that having mandated ‘retirement ages’ is something that people who are working up an organisations’ ranks are going to want to keep as the sooner the ‘oldies’ retire, the sooner they can assume senior leadership roles. If retirement is forced by age, then it allows for a ‘painless’ and organised process where no-body can be judged for wanting to push people out of an organisation and everyone keeps face.

*Note: this simplified explanation isn’t to say that talent counts for nothing, but talent certainly isn’t everything. In my opinion, this ‘senpai-kohai’ dynamic, while a cornerstone of Japanese society, is something which is going to have to evolve in order for Japan to reach its full potential, and indeed, to get through the challenges presented by its shifting demographics.


Japan has historically been a country that has been a difficult place for people to migrate to. There are many reasons for this, though the strict immigration policies are an obvious starting point. It also relates to Japan’s historical isolation from the rest of the word which, while being the most defining cause of Japan’s unique and appealing culture, has also made the social integration of migrants a difficult process for all parties involved. In recent years, the migration laws have been relaxed a bit, and there are some regional areas that see skilled migration as a potential silver bullet, but on the whole it doesn’t appear that migrants are going to come anywhere near close to filling the labour market gap of the declining population numbers.


Another interesting observation over the last 15 years or so has been the gradual shift in terminology used to describe Japan’s shifting demographics. Originally the term used was 高齢化社会(Koreika shakai) which literally translates to ‘Ageing Society’, and suggested that the change was still in process.

With a large proportion of people then shifting into retirement the language shifted to 高齢社会 (Korei Shakai), which translates to ‘Aged Society’ and acknowledged that the society had gone through that state of change.

More recently, all Japanese media are referring to their society as the 超高齢社会 (Cho-korei Shakai) or “Super-Aged Society”.

Looking at the demographic pyramids, and with the seemingly ever increasing life expectancies of Japanese, one wonders whether they’ll need to add another “Super” or two onto their terminology before this is all over and done with!


Clearly something has to change if Japan is going to come out the other side of its demographic transformation.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now Japan’s longest serving prime minister, has been very vocal on Japan’s need to change. His “Abenomics” policies over the past 8 years have focussed on stimulating the Japanese economy and has had some success to date, though detractors will still say not enough.

Most recently, the government has latched onto the concept of “Society 5.0” ( https://www.gov-online.go.jp/cam/s5/eng/ ), which is essentially
a description of the next evolution of organised human society. It is a fascinating and appealing concept which relies on technology and automation to do the basic functions of society while humans can focus on the higher value tasks, and in turn live a higher quality of life. There is an interesting article on the UNESCO site which explains this concept further.

A full summary of the Abe Government’s ‘Abenomics’ agenda is available here:

In February 2018, the Japanese government released a draft policy called “General Principles Concerning Measures for the Ageing Society”. Amongst other things it recommends changes to make it easier for the population to work longer if they want to and ensuring that working hours are reduced to 40 hours per week (to help prevent burnout).

Another relevant policy is related to Japan’s push to advance Robotics Technology as both a means to replace labour shortages and to provide technology that will help care for a potentially super-super-super aged society. It will also help position Japan as a world leader in the field of robotics (if it isn’t already). http://www.meti.go.jp/english/press/2015/pdf/0123_01b.pdf

There are a range of other relevant policies such as immigration and support for rural and regional areas which is mostly covered by the Japan Revitalisation Strategy 2014.


In summary, it is clear that Japan’s situation is unique  in the world … at the moment.  It won’t be too long before other advanced western countries, including Australia, begin to catch up and find itself in a similar demographic scenario. It won’t be exactly the same, though the lessons we can learn from Japan should help the rest of the world prepare.

Without a strong migration policy and no signs that the birth rate will change, there is no way for Japan to fill the void of the declining population. In effect the country is in a crisis. That fact in itself actually gives me confidence that there is a strong chance that the Society 5.0 concept (or something similar) could actually be successfully executed in Japan. “Necessity is the mother of invention” after all. It is an evolution that I look forward to watching unfold, and with significant worldwide attention about to be focussed on Japan with the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, there is no better time for Japan to step up and showcase itself to the world.

NEXT TIME: In the next EDA Journal we will look at some of the feature case-studies and learnings from the 2018 Study Trip which highlight Japan’s progression towards Society 5.0, while also pointing out some of the major challenges being faced.

Bruce Marshall is the Economic Development & Tourism Coordinator at Melton City Council in Victoria. He first visited Japan in 2000 and has been a regular visitor for the past 19 years. In 2018 Bruce was a recipient of the EDA International Study Tour scholarship. Bruce’s 10 day trip to Japan included attendance at the Aging and Society Conference in Tokyo, and featured various site visits and interviews relevant to Japan’s aging & shrinking population. A full copy of the study tour report is available on the EDA website. Alternatively you can learn more about the study trip and other related stories on Bruce’s blog: http://superagedsociety.blog