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Japan, People and Society

Japan ranks as the world’s ninth most populous nation, with a population of 126,974,630 (2002 estimate). It is also one of the most crowded, with an average population density of 336 persons per sq km (870 per sq mi). The population is distributed unevenly within the country. Densities range from very low levels in the steep mountain areas of Hokkaido and the interior of Honshu island to extraordinarily high levels in the urban areas on Japan’s larger plains. The most crowded area is central Tokyo, where overall population density is about 13,000 persons per sq km (about 33,000 per sq mi). About 79 percent of Japan’s people are concentrated in urban areas, making Japan one of the most heavily urbanized nations in the world.

Although Japan is one of the world’s most populous and crowded countries, it is also one of the slowest growing. At present, the annual population growth rate is 0.15 percent. At this rate the population will take 462 years to double. The slow rate of increase is due to low birthrates (10 births per 1,000 people in 2002) and a relatively low rate of foreign immigration. Birthrates are now less than one-third what they were in Japan before the 1950s, when it was common for couples to have three or more children. The average number of children per couple in Japan is now less than 1.5. The total population of the country is expected to begin declining soon because Japan’s net reproduction rate has been below 1.0 for a number of years (meaning that the Japanese population is not replacing itself). Projections call for population totals of about 120 million in 2025 and about 101 million in 2050. The prospect of such significant decline raises worries in Japan about whether the country will have a sufficient labor force to meet economic needs and enough people of working age to support the growing proportion of the population that is elderly.

The age structure of Japan’s population has changed tremendously in recent decades. The segment of the population between the ages of 0 and 14 declined from 35.4 percent in 1950 to 15.2 percent in 1998, while the number of people aged 65 or older increased from 4.9 percent to 16.0 percent. In 1995 Japan’s elderly outnumbered its youth for the first time in the country’s history. Life expectancy increased over the same period, largely due to improved health conditions, and is now 84 years for females and 78 years for males, in both cases the highest expected longevity in the world. The number of people in Japan aged 85 or over has increased from 134,000 in 1955 to an estimated 4.3 million in 1998.

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