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Tokyo wants to upgrade Japan’s defense capacity. A demographic crisis could get in the way.

Recruiting military personnel has become increasingly difficult as the population ages

- July 29, 2021

In July, the Ministry of Defense released its annual “Defense of Japan” white paper, outlining the current state of Japan’s defense, security policies and regional and global threats. Typically the 500-plus page document arrives without much fanfare — but Japan’s East Asia neighbors expressed outrage over this year’s “warlike” cover, protesting the ink drawing of a warrior on horseback.

Taiwan, on the other hand, praised Japan’s firmer stance on the importance of Taiwan to regional security. To analysts, the paper gives some indication Japan can meet a long-standing U.S. desire for a more assertive security partner. Security experts have argued for several years that Japan is ready to break free from the confines of the peace constitution that has forbidden aggressive security policy for more than 75 years.

Leaving aside any artwork controversies, there’s one clear reason fears and hopes of a remilitarized Japan are unwarranted. With more than 25 percent of the population aged 65 or older, Japan has limited ability to significantly increase its security capabilities and disrupt the East Asia balance of power.

War is a numbers game

Research for my new book reveals that Japan’s aging and declining population stymies Japan Defense Forces (JSDF) recruitment and limits defense spending. Japan faces an almost insurmountable demographic crisis, with far-reaching impacts on its neighbors and on global security. Since 1974, Japan’s population replacement rate has remained below 2.1 — that’s a critical point for demographers, indicating when births slightly outnumber deaths.

Addressing the demographic crisis gained renewed urgency when the Japanese government recorded fewer than 1 million births in 2011. Government projections at the time estimated that close to 40 percent of the population will be over 65 by the year 2060.

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Although all countries in East Asia are undergoing population decline, their militaries are far larger than the JSDF’s 247,150 authorized personnel. Past defense reports note demographics are a key reason the JSDF doesn’t meet its authorized personnel quotas. Despite the 2018 decision to increase the upper age limit of military recruits from 26 to 32, the pool of people eligible for enlistment will shrink by 30 percent over the next 40 years. Unlike other East Asian militaries that practice conscription, the JSDF remains an all-voluntary force because of constitutional limitations.

Traditionally, the JSDF drew most of its recruits from rural areas, where economic opportunities are scarcer. But the countryside has been hit hardest by demographic trends, as many young Japanese move to metropolitan areas for work. Japan is one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with 92 percent of the population living in cities in 2020.

Anti-militarism attitudes that developed after World War II and the many job opportunities coming available due to an aging and shrinking labor force make the option of military service or a military career unpopular. During the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment in Japan increased to only 3 percent, compared to a U.S. spike of 14.8 percent at the peak.

Conflict is expensive

To make up the human resource deficit, the Ministry of Defense began shifting its focus toward capital equipment purchases and investment in artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles. These are primarily defensive technologies — and are designed to lessen the burden on the JSDF, and not to disrupt the regional power balance.

Don’t panic about China’s new nuclear capabilities

But Japan is keeping an eye on China’s expanding defense capabilities and North Korea’s growing nuclear program. This year’s white paper acknowledged increased defense spending throughout East Asia, with particular emphasis on South Korea reaching defense spending parity with Japan and probably overtaking it by 2025.

Keeping pace with regional defense spending is prohibitively expensive. Interviews with politicians for my book revealed that few believe that the government could garner enough public support to significantly increase defense spending above 1 percent of gross domestic product.

And Japan’s weak economy has tied the hands of government leaders. In 2020, Japan’s debt was 256 percent of GDP, the highest among advanced industrialized countries. This debt will grow as the population grays. In 2020, social security expenditures accounted for 34.9 percent of government spending, more than double the amount in 1993.

Entitlements become almost unsustainable once Japan faces the “2025 problem,” when budget analysts expect government health-care costs to skyrocket because Japan’s 6.5 million-strong baby boom generation will be age 75 or older. With a maximum income tax rate of 55.97 percent, a 10 percent resident tax and a 10 percent consumption tax, there is little left to extract from an aging and shrinking population.

Is women’s participation part of the solution?

The Japanese government has sought to address these demographic and economic problems by encouraging women to have more children and boosting their participation in the workforce. But deeply embedded cultural practices make it more difficult for women than men to remain in the labor market.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 46.9 percent of women stop working once they become pregnant. Women carry the child-care burden at home. In 2017 only 5.14 percent of Japanese men took child-care leave, the highest on record. In contrast, 83.2 percent of women took time off to care for their child.

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What about women in the military?

The Ministry of Defense has dedicated tens of millions of dollars toward building day-care facilities and female-only barracks, efforts aimed at improving the support of women in the military, who until recently were barred from combat roles. Despite such focused efforts, the ministry’s goal for women’s participation remains low, anticipating women will comprise only 12 percent of the JSDF by 2030.

Demographics have often been blamed for economic crises, when a shrinking population prompts labor shortages, for instance — or for insecurity, with the argument that a surplus of young men leads to violence and war. Japan offers an important case study in how demographics can constrain a country’s ability to maintain its defense capacity, let alone rapidly militarize.

To date, the government has treated the aging and declining population as an existential crisis to national security. Whether it’s how to attract more recruits — or boost gender equality and get more women to enlist — the military will find it difficult to overcome the realities of Japan’s demographic picture.

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Tom Phuong Le (@profTLe) is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College and author of “Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacifism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century” (Columbia University Press, 2021).