Social Isolation to Shrinking Birth Rate: Dark Premonitions from Japan |

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Japan seems to be living the future now – with their technological advancement and innovative minds, they have given toilets that check your health, and have plans to build an elevator to space by 2050. They built futuristic cities, created innovative tech, and mandated exercise drills at offices to keep their staff healthy.

It seems like a good working model of a country that’s future-proof – a model that many other countries are trying to emulate. But even under the shiny veneer of this high-tech paradise, the society itself is still holding onto outmoded notions of patriarchy and conformity.

Already cracks are showing, and if other countries are fast catching up to Japan’s version of modernism, then perhaps it could well serve as a case study for what the future holds for other nations.

Hikikomori and Social Isolation

Hermits are often thought to comprise a group of people from a demographic that’s mainly old and (sometimes) crazy, and shun human contact to live in a metaphorical cave. However in Japan, there are at least half a million people living as modern-day hermits, aged between 17 and 25. 

Known as hikikomori, these recluses withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time. This phenomenon isn’t new – many hikikomori are now in their 40s, having lived as hermits for over 20 years. Most of these are ‘school refusers’ who shun going to school out of fear or anxiety, caused by factors like bullying and the pressure to conform. 

Ironically with the advent of technology and the internet, hikikomori are finding it easier to disconnect with the world. Internet addiction, particularly video gaming, actually takes up a large proportion of a hikikomori’s time.

Some psychiatrists suggest that hikikomori may be affected by psychological disorders like autism that affect social integration, which lead to strong levels of psychological distress due to Japan’s tendency to conform. This suggests that people become shut-ins because mental illness is shunned by society.

Overprotective parenting is another factor, since the only human connection most hikikomori may have is their parents, who often still feed and house them. In fact, Japan has coined hikikomori “the 2030 Problem” – a time when they are in their 60s and their parents begin to die. 

Hikikomori spreading worldwide

Before discounting the hikikomori as a Japanese problem, know that their situation stems from issues many modern societies face today: overprotective parenting, social pressure to conform, addiction to technology, and the stigma of mental illness. 

In the last decade, there’s been a rise of recluses in South Korea, with numbers around 200,000. In Italy, the over 100,000 hermits aged 14 to 25 refuse any kind of human contact, leading only online lives. In fact, the hikikomori syndrome is estimated to affect 1.6% of youth globally, especially in Asian cities like Singapore, which has a similar modern society to Japan.

Plunging Birth Rate

Photo by Isaac Taylor from Pexels

Japan’s population is decreasing fast. In 2017, more people died than babies were born – by 400,000 people. Japan’s shrinking population woes began in 2010, and by now it has shrunk by about 1.3 million people. The Japanese Statistics Bureau estimates that their population will fall to just over 100 million by 2050 from around 127 million today. 

The decline is down to two factors: less Japanese women are choosing to have children, and the government’s aversion to immigrants. 

Since the 1990s, Japan’s government has enacted a number of not-so-successful programmes to help create young families, including reducing childcare costs and forcing companies to adopt family-friendly policies. This year, they’re investing in matchmaking AI to help boost birth rates.

These plans do not address an age-old patriarchal system – husbands are expected to work till late, while wives are expected to run the household, even when more and more women are getting higher education. Japanese men contribute the least to household chores compared to the world’s wealthiest nations.

Unfortunately, working mothers – no matter how qualified, capable or willing – still don’t have much opportunity for career advancement, hindered by the men in upper management. This not only holds back an economy that’s struggling with labour shortages, but also blocks mothers from higher-paid jobs that could help out with childcare costs. 

Women also bear the blame of rising social security costs due to the country’s declining population – ironic considering that there should be a father in the picture. However, the situation isn’t helped by the rise of singles, both men and women; a 2016 government survey suggested that almost half of Japan’s single millennials (aged 18 to 34) are still virgins.

Shrinking population is a global issue 

Many developed nations – Singapore included – are also seeing lower birth rates of late, prompting governments such as ours to enact family-friendly policies, from baby bonuses to government-paid leave. But like Japan, none of the schemes address the traditional gender roles – simply look at all the advertisements which focus solely on women being the sole caretaker. 

At least Singapore’s open immigration policy allows it to address the population shortage in the short term – unlike in Japan, where even with recently relaxed immigration rules, few foreigners are offered permanent residency due to Japan’s inclination to preserve a homogeneous society. 

Super-Aged: Die Alone or Become a Criminal

These days, many Japanese tend to live way into their 80s or more. According to the WHO, Japan is the world’s most ‘super-aged society’ because it has over 27.7% of people over 65. 

With the elderly population on the rise, so too is the rise of cases where elderly people die alone, in a phenomenon known as kodokushi. It’s estimated that there are about 4,000 kodokushi deaths a week – some bodies aren’t discovered until months later, when either their pension runs out, or when nearby residents notice an odour. Even when they’re dead and cremated, their ashes often remain unclaimed.

Most of these lonely elderly either don’t have family, are estranged, or choose to live alone to avoid burdening their families. Kodokushi often takes place in cities, because people are naturally drawn to where opportunities lie. Compare the rise in elderly population between rural and cosmopolitan areas – Tokyo’s is projected to be over 300,000 (2.5%), while comparatively rural Akita’s is just over 9,000 (6%) between 2015 and 2025. Modern life, it seems, is the cause of kodokushi.

Feelings of loneliness and financial hardship suffered by the elderly sometimes lead them to commit petty crime – just so that they can go to prison where they can fulfill their needs. The number of elderly prisoners rose from 19% of the prison population in 2000 to about 60% in 2006, prompting the government to build prisons with facilities to cater to them. 

Many prisoners are repeat offenders, simply because they prefer living in a prison where they have a job, regular meals, and company. More women tend to commit crimes, even if they have a roof over their heads – some have children or a husband at home. It’s the feeling of being appreciated and cared for – rather than being invisible in the household – that makes them return.

The rise in elderly population certainly raises issues for a government that’s struggling to cover the pensions of this long-lived generation. Even the theft of a ¥200 sandwich could mean a ¥8.4 million yen tax bill for a 2-year sentence. Couple this with the fact that the elderly could suffer from dementia while holding onto securities worth ¥150 trillion by 2035 – with their assets frozen, it could stop economic growth.

Rise of the forgotten generation

The world’s elder population is estimated to grow from 8.5% today to nearly 17% by 2050. In the rush to create a utopian world for the future generation, Japan is not the only country to seem to have forgotten to consider the impact of those in the previous generations whose lives are now prolonged by modern ingenuity.

In Singapore, it’s estimated that 83,000 elderly persons will be living alone by 2030, compared to 47,000 in 2016. Recently a case involving the discovery of the body of an elderly woman who lived alone 2 years after her death raised a lot of questions. While Singapore’s elderly poor are not short of assistance schemes like rental waivers or medical subsidies, they suffer a similar Japanese problem: social isolation due to failing health and mental illness.

One in five elderly people in Singapore aged 75 and above show signs of depression, and with a stigma against mental illness, many such elderly folks in Singapore – like in Japan – are “forgotten by society”.

Side effects of the rush to the future

Japan’s race to the future has unexpected side effects; it has basically sacrificed aspects of humanity – like apathy and social connection – in order to be a vision of tomorrow. Perhaps in order to map out a blueprint of a better metropolis, we must hold onto that human connection to avoid becoming a literal ghost in the shell.