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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Challenges of Demographic Change

Demographic change is a research topic that satisfies the above-mentioned criteria for research at the DIJ. It is interdisciplinary in scope, dependent on data and sources collected and analysed in Japan, and suitable for collaboration with Japanese researchers and institutions. Demographic change, while being of particular relevance for Japan, poses great challenges for many industrialized countries. Japan is a paradigm case for studying the interaction of heredity and environment, an interaction that leads to shifts in collective behaviour and demographic structure. In the history of humanity, the spread of ageing through the population is a very recent development that has changed and continues to change society at large.

In regards to population ageing, Japan plays a special role that is of interest beyond the confines of Japanese studies. Within the timeframe of only a century, Japan has transformed itself from latecomer to frontrunner. While at the beginning of the twentieth century the average life expectancy in Japan was significantly lower than it was in Western Europe, by the end of the century it was the highest in the world. Thus, in Japan, demographic ageing and fertility decline occurred much faster than in other industrialized countries, necessitating enormous adjustments of the social, economic and political systems. The complexity of the phenomenon and the multifacetedness of its manifestations in virtually all domains of society and at all stages of the life course (from birth to death) make it a paradigm case for interdisciplinary research. Moreover, the causes and consequences of Japan’s population development invite international comparison, especially with the prosperous nations of Western Europe. While declining birth rates, rising life expectancy and growing median age can be observed in all industrialized countries, changes in the population structure as well as responses to these changes on the part of both government and market tend to be country-specific. Japan is the first real-life test case when it comes to the question of whether a rapidly ageing and, in the medium term, shrinking society can maintain its economic clout.

Since the inception of the DIJ research focus, the challenges of demographic changes in Japan have steadily gained importance. Media coverage has increased notably; the government has designed policies and passed many laws concerning population development; and civil society steps in where state actors are ill prepared or too inflexible to cope with the tasks at hand. Investigating the social, economic, political and cultural transformations brought about by and accompanying population change proved to be a worthwhile undertaking.

In addition to many research papers, three major works have been compiled by researchers of the DIJ: Trilingual Glossary of Demographic Terminology, The Demographic Challenge. A Handbook about Japan, and Imploding Populations in Japan and Germany. In addition various workshops and symposia on the topic had been held (see events)