Japan’s Rapid Aging and Yet Robust New National Defense Plans
A decade or so ago, when the emergence of rapidly aging and shrinking populations was only beginning to enter public consciousness, a number of scholars advanced an idea that the emergence of older societies with fewer children would lead to more peaceful international relations. At that time, only Russia and Japan among major powers had experienced population shrinkage as a result of low birthrates and only Japan had reached “super-aged” status. Since that time, “aging power” Russia has invaded its neighbor Ukraine and an aging China has continued its sharp increase in military expenditures despite its population having begun to shrink due to its own rapid aging. South Korea and Taiwan also have increased defense spending markedly and implemented new national defense strategies to adjust to their low birthrates that have resulted in roughly half the number of military conscripts than two decades ago. In short, the security environment that has emerged in an aging Asia is far from the “demographic peace” idea that many had predicted.
The situation would be worse for US allies such as Japan if they were the only ones facing this demographic challenge, but security rivals China and Russia also face similar demographic concerns (though in their own unique ways and generally on a later timeline). Also, some US allies and partners in the region have more youthful and growing populations, such as the Philippines and Quad-member India, with Australia and Singapore also continuing to have growing populations due to robust immigration. The regional "arms race" that many observe today is in part a result of many aging territories in the region spending more to shift the composition of their armed forces due in part to challenging demographics, particularly countries that previously had relied on cheap, conscripted military forces like South Korea and Taiwan (and, to some extent, China).
The strategy that Japan’s leaders have developed to address what its December 2022 National Security Strategy describes as “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII” goes against what observers expected of an aging society with a shrinking population and serious fiscal challenges. Rather than looking inward, Japan has expanded the number and depth of security partnerships with other states and has put into place a plan to increase its own military capabilities in numerous significant ways.
My research finds that the rise of numerous types of new, gray-zone conflicts also means that a wider range of people (and machines) can be used to address different sorts of security challenges. More than ever, militaries are seeking to recruit different types of people to address specific concerns -- including a bigger role for those with skills useful for cyber defense. The shrinking pool of potential recruits due to a smaller working-age population also necessitates more flexible thinking. Demographics are not the only driver of more flexible recruiting practices, however: we see a similar trend in the US and Chinese militaries, for example, even though there is not (yet) the same level of demographic urgency to change established recruiting practices in those countries. When pilots can fly planes from trailers in homeland suburbs rather than deployed abroad and some of the most urgent threats states face are in the cyber domain, it opens the door for a much wider range of people to contribute to national defense. It also affords a greater role for security partners from other countries.
There has been substantial research and policy discussion focused on how Japan’s declining birthrate might be reversed as Japan’s demographic challenges become more widely felt. This should indeed be one goal for a country that is projected to shrink to its 1965 population size by 2050 and will continue to shrink further unless its birthrate increases (or immigration is substantially increased). For the next two decades, however, Japan’s defense planners must work with the existing population as well as potential international partners: anyone who might join the military or work on Japan’s cyber-defenses in the next 20 years has already been born.
Despite many challenges that arise from the rapid aging phenomenon, Japan has shown an impressive range of innovative approaches to address these challenges including increased automation, outsourcing of some defense roles, improving efficiency and streamlining procedures, and increasing/deepening international partnerships. All of these approaches will need to be further employed to address the increased aging and population shrinkage on the near-term horizon. Japan’s long life expectancy combined with its low birth rate mean that the Japanese population will continue to age rapidly in the decades to come, with a projected median age of over 54 by 2050 and more than 38% of its population aged 65+. This great achievement in health and longevity will pose further challenges. Japan’s experience to date, however, also provides a useful template for how other states in the region and worldwide also could maintain a strong defense posture despite the challenges posed by rapid aging.