Country Profile: Japan

In the opening pages of his 2014 book Political Order and Political Decay, author Francis Fukuyama writes: ‘Political order is rooted in human biology.’ With this in mind, it is worth considering the importance of people when it comes to the development and success of countries. This article will be an analysis of Japan not only through its geography, but its demographics as well. The demographics of Japan are indicative of a shift that is taking place throughout much of the developed world – a shift towards lower birth rates and ageing populations. Japan is facing, and will continue to face, a tremendous challenge when it comes to managing both its demographics and its geopolitical position in the first half of the 21st century. This article will outline these challenges, and explore what Japan is doing to overcome them.

Flag of Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Flag of Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Key Figures

  • Population – 126,919,659
  • Size – 377,915 sq km
  • Official Language – Japanese
  • Capital – Tokyo
  • AKA – Nippon
Location of Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Location of Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Japan is an island nation located in East Asia; South Korea, Taiwan, China and Russia are its closest neighbours. Japan is made up of 4 main islands, but actually consists of over 6,852 islands in total. The Japanese name for the country is possibly derived from the early Chinese pronunciation of日本 (Nippon), which translates as ‘sun origin.’ Today, Japan is often referred to as the Land of the Rising Sun, due to its far eastern location.

The capital of Japan is Tokyo, home to the world’s largest metropolitan population. The  population of the greater Tokyo area is estimated to be 37,800,000, which is almost 30% of the total Japanese population. There is a geographical reason why Tokyo is located where it is, and also why it is home to so many people. Tokyo is located on the Kanto Plain, the largest expanse of flat arable land in all of Japan. As a series of islands formed by volcanic activity, Japan is home to countless mountain ranges and active volcanoes. But there is also a lack of land suitable for large-scale human habitation. Tokyo has not always been the capital of Japan; Kyoto and other cities in the Kansai region have also been designated as the administrative capitals, but the Kansai region itself is also home to some relatively flat land. Most contemporary Japanese cities are located in the few areas which possess flat, low-lying land.

Topographical Map of Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Topographical Map of Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While Japan may be rich in terms of beautiful scenery, it lacks many of the natural resources that developed countries rely on. Japan is a net importer of both food and energy. Energy, including oil and gas, has long been a focus for the Japanese government. As rapid industrial development took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan quickly found that it lacked many, if not all, of the resources required to fully industrialise. Therefore, the leaders of Japan looked overseas to see if they could secure these resources for extraction. This gave birth to the Japanese Empire, and rapid period of expansion where Korea, Taiwan, China, and many other Asian countries were invaded and occupied by the Imperial Japanese army.

This aggression in East Asia and the Pacific eventually resulted in the United States of America imposing an oil embargo on the Japanese Empire. Once again, Japan found itself lacking a vital resource to fuel its industrial machine. This set off a chain of events which led to Japanese defeat during the Second World War in 1945.

Contemporary Japan is a very different place from Imperial Japan. However, many of the geographical challenges faced by the old Empire are still relevant today. Feeding its large population and fuelling the 3rd largest economy on earth are still problems that need to be addressed by any Japanese leader or government. Additionally, territorial disputes with Japan’s neighbours threaten to provoke conflict or create diplomatic tension. These disputes will be outlined later in this article.


In 2015, the CIA World Factbook estimated that there were 126,919,659 people living in Japan. Of these, over 98% are ethnically Japanese. This makes Japan one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. There are some ethnic minorities though, and they include Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians. In terms of religion, the country is overwhelmingly Shinto or Buddhist. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, being practiced by over 80% of the population. There is also a small minority of Christians numbering at around 1.5% of the population.

The Japanese language is spoken by almost all people living in Japan. But Japanese is relatively unique, as linguistic experts have struggled to connect it to any other living language. Most languages belong to larger language families, but Japanese appears to be its own small linguistic grouping. This has a cultural effect too. While most nations tend to form cultural bonds with their linguistic relatives, Japanese culture is isolated both geographically and linguistically.

For many years, headlines have proclaimed that Japan is undergoing a ‘demographic crisis,’ and this is true – to an extent. Since the late 1980s, Japan’s birth-rate has been below replacement levels, leading to several years of population decline. A replacement level birth-rate is simply when the average number of children born per woman is enough to sustain a population from one generation to the next. Japan’s birth-rate is currently below this level. This is certainly a major challenge, perhaps Japan’s greatest, but it is not an issue unique to the island nation. Many other countries, including some of its closest neighbours, will soon face very similar problems.

The Japanese population peaked in 2008, at around 128 million people. Since then, the population has declined annually. The largest decline yet was recorded in 2015, with the figure falling by over 250,000 in a single year. But what are the consequences of such a decline?

In the below chart, you can see a population pyramid of the Japanese population from 2015. The trends visible on the chart are plain to see. For instance, the post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation is visible in the 65-69 age bracket. However, the most important trend on the chart is the general narrowing towards the bottom. This indicates that the younger generation will be outnumbered by the older generations.

Population Pyramid of Japan, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.
Population Pyramid of Japan, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Population charts like the one above typically result in declining economic performance for the country in question, especially when it comes to the consumption of goods. Young people tend to be big purchasers of electronic goods, clothes and other services. Young people also grow up to be workers and homeowners. When there are fewer people, and therefore fewer overall consumers, businesses soon start to struggle. Another economic consequence to consider is tax revenue. As the average Japanese person gets older, there will be more and more elderly people to care for. These people, while important to any society, are ultimately not very economically productive, and largely do not produce much in the way of tax revenue. This decline in tax revenue has also caused government debt to expand rapidly. The percentage of government debt to GDP ratio in Japan is one of the highest in the world, and much of the existing tax revenue is simply used to pay debt obligations.

The Japanese economy went through a period of rapid growth after the Second World War, but since the early 1990s, growth has been sluggish at best. The reasons behind this economic stagnation are myriad, but demographics are one reason that can’t be overlooked. Population growth in 1975 was nearly 8%, but by 1995 had fallen to 1.6% and continued to decline. In the same period, economic growth boomed and then nearly came to a complete halt.

In terms of demographics, Japan could be seen as a canary in coal mine. This is because while Japan’s problems are currently unique, at least for an economically powerful country, they will soon not be all that uncommon. In Eastern Europe, former Soviet states such as Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia have already experienced population decline. In Western Europe, Germany stands out as an example of a country which, for many years, has relied on immigration to simply maintain its population levels. In East Asia, states such as South Korea and Taiwan currently have birth rates lower than their Japanese neighbours. Even the economic powerhouse of China is facing a future demographic crisis thanks to its recently abolished one-child policy. In a matter of years, these countries will soon face the same challenges as Japan. How Japan manages its demographic decline could serve as a lesson to the rest of the world. Other countries will strive to avoid the economic stagnation that has gripped the Japanese economy for more than two decades, but a clear path forward remains elusive.

International Relations

Following the end of the Second World War, Japan was occupied by the United States; since that time, Japan has played a critical role in America’s military presence in East Asia and the Pacific. Japan is arguably America’s closest Asian ally, and during the Cold War proved geographically useful in containing Soviet (and, to an extent, Chinese) naval power.

In recent years, especially since President Obama came to office, there has been talk of a ‘Pivot to Asia‘ when it comes to American foreign policy. Simply put, this ‘Pivot’ involves the United States shifting its focus away from Europe and the Middle East to the Asian geopolitical arena. Commentators believe that this is largely in response to the rapid rise of China since the end of the Cold War.

While America may need Japan in its geopolitical efforts in East Asia, Japan also needs America. Japan has ongoing territorial disputes with all of its neighbours, some minor, some major. The primary territorial dispute which has made the most headlines is that of the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China (and Taiwan). These uninhabited islands came under direct Japanese control in 1895 following the First Sino-Japanese War. However, following the discovery of potential undersea oil and gas reserves in the neighbouring waters in 1968, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) claimed sovereignty over the islands. The issue largely remained undiscussed until recently, when, in 2012, the Japanese government purchased the islands from their ‘private owner.’

Location of the Senkaku Islands, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Location of the Senkaku Islands, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In response to this move, China has stepped up efforts to control the airspace and waters surrounding the islands. Despite all the posturing, little has been done to directly resolve this issue. Both sides remain steadfast in the view that ‘their’ islands rightfully belong to them. Here, Japan must be thankful for its American alliance. Without the world’s only superpower behind it, Japan would find itself in a much weaker position against its far larger and rapidly developing neighbour.

In China, Japan is viewed in an extremely negative light, primarily due to memories of the invasion and brutal occupation of China during the Second World War. This view of Japan is shared by many other Asian countries, including South Korea, where tensions over issues such as ‘comfort women’ linger to this day. While Japan has recently made steps to fully reconcile with South Korea, nationalistic tensions still run high, and it is unlikely that relations with either country will normalize any time soon. In regards to China, relations have definitely deteriorated in recent years. From the 1970s until the 1990s, Japan was a major investor in the developing manufacturing sector in China, and used Chinese factories to help fuel its own technology and automotive industries. But now, China is looking to become the primary Asian economic power, and likely views Japan as a historic rival that must be overcome. Nationalism is widely used as a political tool in modern China, and Japan makes for a perfect (historic) enemy toward which the government can direct popular anger and mistrust.

The Island of Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire for almost fifty years, from 1895 until the end of the Second World War. While tensions still remain over this occupation, Taiwanese-Japanese relations are much warmer than relations between mainland China and Japan. Since the 1970s, Japan has officially recognised the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of all of China, including Taiwan. However, Japan has maintained strong non-governmental relations with Taiwan, and has encouraged business and tourism between the two. In 2013, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a report highlighting the ‘close and friendly’ relations between Taiwan and Japan.

Contemporary Taiwan finds itself in a difficult position. It is legally part of the People’s Republic of China, yet maintains almost complete autonomy and independence. Public opinion in Taiwan has largely turned against the idea of reunification with the mainland, so developing and maintaining strong relations with the likes of Japan and the United States is an effective way of ensuring this autonomy in the face of a growing China.

Japan’s final neighbour discussed here is the world’s largest country: Russia. Japan and Russia currently have an ongoing territorial dispute regarding the northern Kuril Islands off the coast of Hokkaido. These islands have historically been occupied and administered by both Japan and Russia during different periods, but are currently held by Russia. Various meetings have taken place to resolve this issue, but it seems unlikely that Vladimir Putin’s Russia will ever give up any territory voluntarily. Despite this territorial dispute however, Russia and Japan maintain relatively stable relations, primarily because of Japan’s need for energy and Russia’s willingness to provide that energy in the form of oil.

Looking Forward

Japan has many challenges to face in the coming years. The demographic challenge of a declining and ageing population has already arrived, but will take decades to be fully realised. There are some actions the Japanese government could take to help increase its fertility rate, including allowing mass immigration, but this seems an unlikely move in the socially conservative and culturally homogeneous nation. Even if Japan were to allow mass immigration, the demographic trends are, in many ways, already set in stone. Around the world, other governments are surely looking at Japan to see what happens in the coming years.

If Japan is focusing its attention on any single country, it must be China. China’s rise over the past couple of decades has been astounding, and it is not without consequence. Japan will look to America to ensure its territorial integrity in the face of this rising power. Japan is also currently increasing its own military spending to counter act China’s growing military might. China will likely continue to see Japan as a country standing in the way of regional hegemony. In an ideal world, China and Japan would strengthen their economic ties and cooperate peacefully, but in reality it seems as though these two countries will continue to be rivals.

North Korea is a country that has not been discussed thus far. This is because its overall impact on East Asia is limited, despite all the noise the hermit state makes about its military prowess. Japan’s goal when it comes to North Korea is to simply ensure that the North Korean military is unable to directly strike Japan with any kind of missile. With South Korea and America both looking to contain North Korea’s supposed military ambitions, and China increasingly impatient with the erratic behaviour of the Pyongyang government, it seems unlikely that North Korea will soon be in any position to strike any of its neighbours.

Despite the demographic crisis and economic stagnation taking place in contemporary Japan, it is not all bad news looking forward. The Land of the Rising Sun is home to a well-educated and highly developed populace that enjoys a high standard of living. According the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), which measures education levels, life expectancy and economic productivity, Japan is ranked in the top 20 of all UN member states. And according to UN HDI projection for 2030, Japan is set to rise in these rankings. Japan’s primary goal for the coming decades should be to strive to ensure that this is an accurate projection, and that Japan manages to maintain or even improve its standard of living. The days of rapid economic growth are over, but that doesn’t mean Japan must give up its quality of life. Increasing unemployment is an example of something which must be monitored very closely by the Japanese government.

Additionally, the Japanese government must attempt to better its relations with the rest of East Asia – especially those countries which may have their own disputes with the rising power of China. Already, there are signs that Japan is doing this with the Philippines. East Asia is a crucial region for the global economy, and will continue to be a place where major powers vie for influence and control. Japan’s role in East Asia cannot be overstated, and America’s renewed interest in the region only highlights its importance. In the coming decades, let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.

My Personal View

I was fortunate enough to spend two years living and working in Japan. To say that the experiences I had left a mark on me would be an understatement. The people I met, the places I visited and, the culture I experienced all had a profound impact on me. However, Japanese culture finds itself in a difficult situation. In my opinion, there has to be serious efforts to reform elements of Japanese culture if it is to thrive in the 21st century. On the other hand, Japanese culture is a fascinating and truly unique culture, one that hopefully will not fade away in the face of reform and/or modernisation. Education in particular, would be one area where reform and a degree of liberalisation (and pragmatism) could have a massive effect. Making an effort to reduce the amount of pressure placed on students, and ensuring that young Japanese people have the opportunity to carve out their own futures, is something that would have a positive influence on Japanese society. 

I would also hope that other countries could look toward the positive sides of Japanese culture. Japan has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, and any visitor to the country will acknowledge how clean and free of litter the Japanese environment is. Recycling is also something that the Japanese do incredibly well. Japan is a densely populated and industrialised country, yet there is a respect for both the environment and wider society that is often difficult to find in other developed states. In this regard, many western countries could surely learn something from Japan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s