One of the biggest crises facing Japan in the 21st century is the prospect of depopulation and the resultant social strains. Japan's birth rate is already one of the lowest in the world and continues to fall. If current population projections hold, Japan could lose 30 to 40 million people by 2050.

Destabilization of the Japanese Family

The roots of this problem are complex and deeply rooted in Japanese culture. According to the traditional values of Japan's profoundly patriarchal culture, men are supposed to work while women are supposed to stay home and manage the family. The Japanese have no concept of day-care, and almost no accomodation for working mothers. Women who have children are practically forced out of the workplace by the lack of institutions and options that allow women in other countries to return to work shortly after their pregnancies. With women forced to choose between a career and children, many Japanese women choose the career, especially at a time when the sagging economy makes the single-breadwinner household increasingly unfeasible. If women have children at all, they often have them late in their 30s.

Moreover, the Japanese institution of marriage is focused on producing children. Once a woman marries, she is often subjected to intense pressure by her family and inlaws to have children. The result is that many career-oriented women simply decline to marry, instead seeking emotional satisfaction in promiscuity or longer-term, but relatively less committed monogamous relationships.

The declining birth-rate is also abetted by the Japanese's effective use of birth control. Although the birth-control pill is almost unheard of in Japan, the Japanese are fanatical about using condoms, and thus the accidental pregnancies that might force women into a family situation in other countries are rare in Japan, and unwanted births are even rarer, as the Japanese attach little stigma to abortion.

An Aging Society

The problem is compounded by Japanese attitudes toward caring for the aged. In a country with no social security, an underdeveloped pension system, and few institutional options for caring for seniors such as retirement homes, Japanese have traditionally expected their children to care for them in their old age. Specifically, older couples lived in their eldest son's household and were cared for by their daughter-in-law.

This means that Japanese women who do enter into the tradtional family by marrying and having children at a younger age often find themselves in a situation where they finish raising their children just in time to begin caring for their infirm and aging inlaws. While this full-time job as a caretaker of the old and the young may have been acceptable to earlier generations of Japanese women when there was little or no hope of individual aspirations and achievement, it is little wonder that the modern woman will seek to avoid this situation at all costs.

The cruel irony, however, is that by not marrying or having children, Japanese women are insuring that old people in need of care are making up an increasing percentage of the population. These senior citizens have no where to turn to for care at present, and with their career-oriented children increasingly seeking alternatives to the traditional, care-providing Japanese family, the aged will only have fewer alternatives in the future.

Labor Crisis

All this bodes ill for the Japanese economy, already sagging under the weight of an unsound banking system and antiquated business practices, and as yet still unrecovered from the collapse of the Bubble Economy back in 1990. While Japanese businesses still cling to the job-for-life, seniority based system of hiring that stifles creativity and imagination, and refuse to grant job opportunites to women and foreigners, the declining birth rate means they will face an increasing shortage of labor.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to an economy is a severe labor shortage. As the labor market contracts, expansion and investment become impossible as retaining the workers takes paramount priority. Wages and benefits have to be increased and even the simplest or most undesireable jobs must be well compensated with so many better jobs available. The result is that businesses ultimately have to contract. In a world economic system in which the health of a nation's economy is measured by how fast it expands, an nation forced into economic contraction by a labor shortage faces economic ruin.

Foreigners Unwelcome

The final piece of the puzzle that is Japan's 21st century crisis is the deep-seated resistance of Japanese to endangering what they view as their cultural purity and homogeneity. One of the best ways to avoid labor shortages is through immigration. Indeed, much of America's economic success in the past two centuries has been built upon the constant influx of new immigrants to join the workforce.

The Japanese however, are exceedingly protective of their perceived homogeneity, which they tend to view as the foundation of strength for their nation. It is virtually impossible to become a Japanese citizen unless one is married to a Japanese spouse, and even then one is likely to be treated as a second class citizen at best. Koreans whose families have been living in Japan for decades or even centuries are still not allowed to become full citizens unless they totally abjure their Korean identity. Immigration to Japan on any sort of permanent basis remains exceedingly difficult, and promises only partial participation in Japanese society. In desperation Japan has recently been looking for compromise solutions to increase immigration while maintaining homogeneity, such as encouraging foreigners of Japanese descent, such as the Japanese-Brazilians and Japanese-Peruvians to repatriate with full-citizenship, but these measures are essentially drops in the proverbial bucket. Without allowing large-scale immigration of ethnically foreign people, Japan faces a slippery slope to economic disaster, and faces cultural upheaval either way.

Throughout their history, the Japanese have been an odd amalgam of intransigency toward change combined with occasional periods of rapid re-invention in the face of crisis. As miraculous as Japan's rapid transition from backward medieval nation to industrialized world power during the Meiji Era and as amazing as its economic recovery in the postwar period were, it will take a miracle of equal proportions for the Japanese to overcome cultural inertia once again if they are to have any hope of overcoming the new crisis in which they are already mired, and which can only get worse if things stay as they are.