The spectacular story of the decline in Japan's population growth continues with that regularity in the extraordinary which has characterized the country over the past hundred years. Death rates are low, but so are the birth rates. Growth continues slowly, but only because the age structure is inherited from a period when birth rates were higher. Official views remain pessimistic-no longer because of excessive growth, however, but because growth itself may cease late in the century and might then be replaced by a decline that eventually could reach 10 percent a generation. Quiet inquiries are already being made concerning the pursuit and the timing of policies to increase birth rates.

Feelings of wonder merge into awe as one watches this transformation in an Asian country. The Japan whose industrial potential was presumably destroyed only 17 years ago has rates of economic growth that exceed 10 percent a year. Present economic targets involve a doubling of national income within a decade, together with a shift of two million people away from agricultural occupations. Already the limited land provides most of the rice needed for 95 million people, and hybrid varieties, improved fertilizers and mechanization threaten to add food surpluses to Japan's many problems of foreign markets. There is no problem of surplus population here, though, for the movement off the land is so massive that in 26 of Japan's 46 prefectures the population declined between 1955 and 1960. The Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area contains 15.8 million people, that of Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe 10.2 million.

There are, of course, unanswered questions about this fabulous tale. In itself that is not surprising; periods of pessimism and grandiose delusion have succeeded each other in Japan's history. Projections of Japan's future now are probably as hazardous as they were in the past; and we see today just how hazardous the earlier ones were, for it may be stated categorically that no students in or outside Japan predicted either the sharp drop in the birth rate or the high rate of economic growth. We study the Japanese phenomena, though, not because we know the answers but because Japan demonstrates the fact of Asian modernization and raises questions about the relevance of her experience for the billion or so people in Asia today who are approximately at the stage where 35 million Japanese were a century or so ago. It is in this context that it becomes particularly worthwhile to look briefly at what has happened in Japan's modern century and to raise questions that have not yet received, in Japan or elsewhere, the attention they deserve.


In the years from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to the late 1930s, Japan seemed to be a perfect illustration of the classic assumptions about the interaction of demographic and economic factors-that is, birth and death rates declined as industrialization and urbanization proceeded. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, population growth, if it occurred at all, was slow and irregular. Then early economic growth was followed by a population increase. The concentration on the land remained unchanged as peasant sons and daughters beyond those needed for replacement moved from agricultural jobs to non-agricultural jobs in the cities. Death rates declined slowly, for incomes were low, nutrition was inadequate and sanitation deficient. Birth rates also declined, initially in the urban areas and among the upper occupational and the educated groups, eventually throughout the nation. In the years from 1920 to 1940, fertility declined steadily in practically all prefectures, rural as well as urban.

The rate of the population increase was low: from 1872 to 1940 it never exceeded 1.5 percent a year. Yet over the decades this slow growth produced a massive total increase. Population became a national concern. In 1872 the total was 35 million; by 1940 it had more than doubled to 71 million. It seemed probable that the population would continue to increase throughout the twentieth century, and that population problems would become more rather than less serious.

The pattern which emerges is a decline in birth and death rates in association with advances in industrialization, urbanization and education. The resulting population growth was never high; the social and economic problems produced were not major hazards to modernization.

Is this, then, the pattern that can be expected or imitated in other Asian nations? The answer is definitely in the negative, whether we base our conclusions on demographic, economic or social factors. Japan's early modernization occurred prior to the availability of D.D.T. and the antibiotics, and consequently her death rates were high. To have reduced them substantially would have required major investments in public health and sanitation, in improving working conditions and in raising nutritional levels. If she had made these investments, it is doubtful whether economic growth could have occurred as rapidly as it did, since on the one hand the rates of savings would have been curtailed sharply, while on the other the more rapid population growth resulting from reduced death rates would have required a major expansion of employment opportunities. If larger proportions of sons and daughters had survived in the rural areas, the exodus to the cities would have had to be much greater in order to prevent pile-ups of people on the land. Furthermore, increased consumption would have reduced the rural savings that contributed so substantially to urban development.

The conditions under which Japan achieved her economic and social development do not correspond to the situation today in the underdeveloped nations, where the "revolution of rising expectations" is a paramount fact. There was universal education in Japan, but it included indoctrination to accept one's role in life and one's duties to the state. Economic modernization took place in compartments: hand labor and traditional ways persisted in agriculture and small industries, while advanced technology was limited to those sectors related to international markets and military power. The state concentrated its resources on industrialization, expansion and power; it assumed no responsibilities for individual and family welfare.

A more serious question as to the relevance of Japan's experience lies in the fact that the population increase and the industrialization occurred in company with a drive for geographic expansion and political power. The advances of empire and the wars that led from easy victory in 1895 to costly defeat in 1945 need not be summarized or evaluated here. What does need to be asked is whether economic and military expansion is an inevitable concomitant of modernization in a country where land is limited and people are many. Whatever the answer, it involves both the economic realities associated with population increase and the interpretation of those realities by makers of national policy. In Japan, the pressure of an increasing population was the major argument for expansion. Was it a genuine factor in forming the beliefs and decisions that led to militarism, imperialism and, finally, war? Or was it simply used to support policies and actions that could not be properly defended on other grounds? One need not elaborate on the relevance of these questions in any assessment of the future of Japan's colossal neighbor on the mainland.

The last great period of Japanese expansion began with the movement into Manchuria in 1931. The military losses were slight, the presumed achievements substantial. Once they had conquered North China and achieved the goal of an Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese saw their population problem in a quite different light-now it was one of insufficient numbers. Japan's net human losses as a result of the Pacific War were limited by the fact that intensive efforts had been made to increase birth rates and reduce death rates.

Losses were nevertheless severe, for Japanese forces were often isolated in the islands of the Pacific and on the Asian mainland with little food and no medical supplies; and many civilians also died, particularly in the incendiary raids on cities. Total defeat and total surrender meant the liquidation of the colonial empire and the imperial structure. Some seven million Japanese were returned to a country where cities had been devastated, industrial plants destroyed and transportation disrupted.

The Japanese people and economy were so seriously injured that demographers forecast high death rates and a declining population. In fact, however, a rapid restoration took place, for the Japanese are an educated and disciplined people and the military occupation was both humanitarian and constructive. So while pessimism reigned and the ghost of Malthus hovered near, families were reunited, new families were formed and a baby boom developed. And death rates dropped rapidly.

In 1947, the birth rate was 34.3 for each 1,000 of population, the death rate 14.6. In 1948 and 1949, birth rates were about 33, death rates below 12. The rate of growth rose above 2 percent a year for the first time in Japan's history. In numerical terms, births remained about 2.7 million a year while deaths declined from more than 1.1 million to less than 950,000. The natural increase was 1.5 million in 1947, 1.8 million in 1948 and 1949. Both the Occupation authorities and the Japanese Government foresaw a soaring population. General MacArthur barred Mrs. Sanger and suppressed an American report on the natural resources of the country; the Japanese newspapers joined in the excitement; and birth control became a topic of conversation throughout Japan.

The most influential factors affecting population growth were not demographic. Revolutionary changes came in ways which were in some cases expected, in others rather weird. The Emperor became a man, like other men. Women became the equals of men-in the Constitution-and the family system lost legal sanction. There was land reform. Many owned land, but few owned enough to live from its products. Primogeniture was abolished, and with the vanishing security of the eldest son went that of the family in perpetuity. A Commission of the Diet recommended both contraception and emigration as government policies to help solve the population problem, but the Diet, which is democratically elected, ignored the report.

In this chaotic situation, the racially conscious Japanese worried that the unfit were multiplying and that the country's biological stock was deteriorating. Prohibitions adopted during the war barred sterilization as well as induced abortion. But in September 1949, the Diet revised the Eugenics Protection Law so as to legalize sterilization and abortion for specific reasons, and it permitted contraceptive services in health centers. Proponents of contraception within and outside Japan were jubilant. They looked forward to a limited use of sterilization and abortion for eugenic reasons along with an extensive use of contraception for family planning.

Japanese ethics did not condemn abortion; the country's medical personnel were numerous and its technology was quite adequate for adapting scientific advances to the field of fertility control. Selected physicians received instructions and the public was informed as to when abortions should be performed. Operations were conducted under aseptic conditions, and the use of penicillin was routine. Since they were performed under medical insurance plans, the cost to patients was not a problem. The number of abortions reported moved swiftly upward, then more or less stabilized at something over a million a year. The government health services, alarmed at the threat to health presumably posed by such widespread resort to induced abortion, began actively training doctors, nurses and midwives to give contraceptive advice.

These actions of the Japanese Government and people are still topics of controversy on many grounds, but the facts of the decline in fertility are demonstrable. The birth rate tumbled from 28.3 per 1,000 population in 1950 to 17.2 in 1957, and then remained approximately at this level. The death rate declined from 10.9 per 1,000 population in 1950 to 8.3 in 1957 and 7.6 in 1960. The population continues to increase, but at a slowing rate and with declining annual increments. If the birth and death rates of the last several years continue, the population will eventually decline.

Are we to assume that this rapid decline in Japanese vital rates in the last decade and a half will now serve as a model for the rest of Asia? Again the answer is negative. The Japanese who have achieved the low death rate and birth rate of a modern people are themselves modern. Their economy is industrial, their residence metropolitan. Education has been compulsory for more than three-quarters of a century; school attendance at the elementary level has been almost universal for more than half a century. Families have strong motives to limit the numbers of their children, and they do so.

No, Japan's experience is not directly transferable, for the conditions that were associated there with slow natural transitions of industrialization no longer exist in Asia. In Japan, industrialization and urbanization were aspects of a single process of economic growth; industries expanded and cities grew; the migration to the city was movement to a job-or, for a girl, to marriage. In contemporary Asia, great cities have grown without an adequate economic base. Some are products of economic failure; surplus people from the rural areas move to cities where jobs are insufficient, housing and amenities improvised, and schools are inadequate. The stimulation for mobility upward, the motivation for limiting the size of families, the aspiration for one's children-all are lacking. What is to be expected now in a Saigon, a Djakarta or a Seoul cannot be equated with what occurred earlier in a Tokyo or an Osaka.


The great significance of Japan to Asia is the fact that Japan exists as it does-industrial, urban, modern, a "have" nation with a "have-not" background. Asian pride in the sprawling neon-lit expanses of Tokyo seems to begin in Istanbul and increases in depth across the continent. Among the sophisticated and the unsophisticated alike in many if not all the Asian countries, there is a deep interest in how Japan achieved the demographic breakthrough to completed modernization within a decade. Group after group visits the Institute of Public Health to study Japan's government-sponsored activities in the field of contraception. In Tokyo, throughout Japan and at scientific meetings elsewhere, private conversation turns to that topic which no government, either in Japan or in other Asian countries, will mention approvingly in public-induced abortion.

The only direct Asian imitation has occurred in the Peoples Republic of China, where visiting consultants on a Friendship Tour were queried unofficially, and where the law announced soon thereafter was almost a replica of that in Japan-although this is acknowledged neither in Tokyo nor Peking. Other Asian countries are interested in Japan's pool of medical personnel as a possible source for technical assistance in their own family- planning programs. But there are limitations, since the Japanese Government obviously could not send abroad physicians who are specialists in induced abortion, nor could other countries accept them if offered. Neither would Japan admit officially that approval of contraception and the establishment of major public health facilities to spread its practice came only after the birth rate had been reduced dramatically by a nationwide resort to induced abortion.

Analysis of the steps in Japan's early development could nevertheless be helpful to planners in other Asian countries. Japan long ago made education through six grades compulsory for boys and girls alike, in rural areas and in cities. Did the resulting universal literacy and widespread elementary education lead to declining birth rates among village people? There were extensive household industries in Japan and small factories increased in number in rural areas. Was this a factor in reducing birth rates, or did it result only from industrialization in the large cities? Or, again, what were the levels and the changes in birth rates in those urban areas where families worked in their own homes under conditions of stability as great as those in the peasant village? Were these families "urbanized"? Were education, upward mobility and the small family characteristic among the migrants themselves or only among the children of migrants? For a time at least, Japan has achieved solutions to problems of poverty and population which presumably are inherent in the ancient cultures of the rice lands of monsoon Asia. The quantitative record is long and diverse, and descriptive materials are plentiful; analysis of them might yield clues as to how to induce social change and declining birth rates among other crowded peoples.

Japan's experience in recent years contradicts the prevalent assumption that the lethargy of traditional societies of the East prevents rapid social change. Japanese culture has been persistent but ever changing. The values and institutions of the village society were aspects of this culture, and they sanctioned early marriage, large families and a veneration for the lineage and property rights of elder sons. Yet the values and the institutions of the great cities and the modernizing villages of today are also aspects of this culture, and they sanction delayed marriage, small families and an emphasis on personal responsibility and achievement. At different times the values of the Japanese culture approved families of quite different sizes, and changes often came swiftly. There were alternatives, in Japanese culture, to demographic doom, and it may be presumed that there are such alternatives in other cultures. The projection of Japan's past into the future has never yielded a description of that future. The Japanese transformation occurred in a period of continuing advances in science and technology, and the changes which they brought were unforeseen. The importance of this fact to the rest of Asia is apparent.


Today the problems created by rapid population growth are widely realized and even more widely discussed. Many people in many sectors of our diverse culture, with its differing traditions and customs, believe that something should be done. There is no consensus, however, for others believe that the doing would be unethical, unwise or simply ineffective. Given a consensus as to the desirability of taking some action, there still would have to be a selection among many possible lines of activity, and this would involve intricate considerations of international propriety. But, even assuming that we overcome our scruples on this score, is effective action in this field feasible? Would our policy be viewed favorably in other countries? Would any policies that we might adopt prove successful in slowing rates of population growth among the peoples of Asia and Africa? The difficulties in these continents seem minimal, moreover, as compared to those of Latin America, especially if family planning were included as an essential aspect of the social modernization that is demanded by the Alliance for Progress.

Glances backward in history or outward across the world provide few answers concerning policy and action in the population field. The areas that are developing today present problems that are new in their magnitudes and their urgencies. Almost the only relevant experience at our disposal has been in Japan, which had no announced policy to reduce birth rates, but which took measures that profoundly affected them. The fundamental lesson learned there merely corroborated a fact that was obvious: population policies concern or impinge on religious and ethical systems, values and the conflict of values, institutional tensions, political and ideological identifications, aspirations for strategic advantage, rationalizations for power drives, and many things more. Overt encouragement or sponsorship of the policies of other governments in this complicated and delicate field therefore requires the most careful assessment of conditions in each specific case-if, indeed, the occasion should arise when such sponsorship would be other than presumptuous on our part.

The decision as to United States policy is not therefore resolved, for what is in view is not our sponsorship but our coöperation or assistance-in personnel, training, facilities and the provision of means. The basic need is not to find a United States policy for the population problems of other countries but a United States policy for coöperation in population policies that other countries themselves have adopted-or wish to adopt. Our critical foreign-policy decision therefore involves a solution of our own internal difficulties and hesitations with reference to population policies in general and birth control in particular. Our dilemma is posed by the deep, divergent religious beliefs and the disparate cultural and social values of our people. It will not be resolved simply or quickly if it is posed in terms of harsh alternatives.

Among American Negroes, birth rates are substantially higher than they were in prewar Japan. The associated problems of limited education, low incomes, high fertility, disorganization and delinquency are as real for us as for the Japanese. And however we may estimate our international obligations, we cannot deny our responsibilities for the Navajo on the reservations. A positive approach to the world's population problem, then, requires that we view the many related problems within our own society with the same frankness with which we approach those of other countries. We have the responsibility for whatever actions are needed in our own country, just as others bear it in theirs. And we should remember what our experience in Japan has taught us: that the fundamental problems and policies in the population field may not be demographic in nature, but social, political and economic.

Finally, we should do well to bear in mind that forecasting in this field has been notably unsatisfactory. Projections of future populations made in the years prior to 1947 involved an implicit assumption that death rates were tied necessarily to ways of living. The numbers expected by the year 2000 were scarcely larger than the numbers that now exist in 1962. Many projections are made today on the implicit assumption that death rates have self-perpetuating downward mechanisms while birth rates retain their inexorable ties with ancient traditions and values. Perhaps so, perhaps not. Projections made prior to the revolutionary technological advances in control over mortality became archaic within a decade. Projections prior to comparable technological advances in control over fertility may become similarly archaic. This is a period of vulnerability and crisis, and we cannot know what the resolution of the conflicting factors will be. It is with an acknowledgment of this uncertainty that we can best proceed to assess the Japanese experience and evolve our own proper policies.

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