[Viewpoint] Old Japan, old Korea

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[Viewpoint] Old Japan, old Korea

Japan embarked on its second national rebuilding campaign, the first having taken place after World War II, and this time to recover from a triple whammy of disasters: an earthquake, a tsunami and nuclear crisis. Tokyo University political science professor Takashi Mikuriya, who is on a government-led panel in charge of coming up with a framework for post-disaster reconstruction, called for a national restoration on the scale of the Meiji Restoration, the turning point for Japan’s industrialization and modernization in the 19th century. He proclaimed that the latest calamities underscored the hard fact that the country’s post-war political, economic and social model is no longer viable, and he recommended an entirely new paradigm to bring the country out of the crisis.

Sweeping political changes are foreseeable. Prime Minister Naoto Kan is under pressure to step down after his government’s poor handling of the natural disasters and nuclear crisis. It is only a matter of time before his cabinet crumbles, with the landslide defeat of the ruling Democratic Party in local elections serving as a harbinger of its doom. Separation of power and political harmony is the bedrock of the Japanese cabinet system. The prime minister rarely dismisses the cabinet.

The central government must consult with local government heads even in emergency situations for such actions as sending firefighting squads to disaster-hit areas. The current system is hardly optimal for strong leadership and quick decision-making. A direct vote to head the cabinet instead of choosing a representative of the majority in the Diet may surface as the new political leadership model. Acute skepticism shown by the Japanese people about the government already suggest the dawn of a new political system.

A recession or a contraction in growth in the first half of the year can be expected. The economy will slow further under the weight of the gigantic, debt-financed cost of reconstruction, plus the cost of replacing the lost nuclear energy from the crippled power plant. Some even forecast a deep and long recession. Looking further ahead, a greater crisis has been in the making for a long time: a demographic crisis due to a sharp decrease in births and the aging of the population. The March 11 earthquake highlighted the severity of the country’s aging problem. Among the people who died in the disasters, more than half were above the age of 65. Japan is the first in the world to be officially identified as an aging society. The population’s average age is 45 and its size is shrinking.

The number of retired citizens requiring pensions and welfare benefits is on the rise and the size of the working population is declining. A half-century ago, more than 10 people in the working population supported one elderly person. Now the ration is three-to-one. Each working person will have to support one living senior citizen by 2055.

The reduction of the economically-active population translates into a decrease in consumers, producers and taxpayers. Meanwhile the increase in senior citizens means greater medical and welfare costs. Such demographics eat up the economy’s gross domestic product and fiscal resources, a recipe for the weakening of national resources and strength. A society loses its vitality when the young population diminishes. Japan is now in an entirely different situation from when the 8-million strong baby-boom generation pulled the country out of the rubble of war. The sense of resolution and fortitude seen in the Japanese people in the last month may have been spurred by anxiety about their existential problems in the future.

But Korea is in no better a situation. The birth rate of a Korean woman averages 1.15, the world’s lowest - even below Japan’s 1.37. The rate bottomed out at 1.08 in 2005. The population is expected to curve downward after reaching 49.34 million in 2018. By 2050, our share of senior citizens is expected be 38.2 percent, according to health ministry estimates. We may have to import foreigners.

Yet we rarely feel any sense of urgency. The 1990s were a lost decade. The demographic issue is a problem of our future, but it has been pushed aside by debates over welfare policy. A welfare policy that doesn’t take demographics into account is meaningless.

The single five-year presidential term may have done a disservice to demographic policies, which require consistency and continuous attention. Japan stopped the fall of its birth rate in the 1990s with concerted endeavors and campaigning by the government and private sector. Our low birth rate problem is loosely supervised by a department in the health ministry. Demographic decline should have the full and undivided attention of the government from the finance to defense ministries to the local governments. We need ministerial-level leadership to spearhead a policy to encourage a healthy rise in our population. For a country with few natural resources, people are everything.

*The writer is editor of foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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