Awaji Conference Statement 2006

Awaji Conference Statement
7th Asia Pacific Forum, Awaji Conference Japan
Saturday, August 5, 2006

The 7th Asia Pacific Forum, Awaji Conference, was held at Awaji Yumebutai International Conference Center and Hotel Anaga on August 4 and 5, 2006, and focused on the theme of "Falling Birthrates and Aging Society Looming in Asia." This theme is particularly timely for Japan, since this year marks a historical turning point in Japan's demographic trends as its population begins to decline after reaching 128 million. Among statistically-based predictions, those concerning demographic changes are rare cases in which we can predict long-term trends, even half a century ahead, with significant accuracy. In theory, such predictability should enable individual countries to prepare for future demographic changes. In actuality, however, many countries do not take effective measures until associated problems become pressing. Eventually, many people are likely to embrace pessimistic attitudes towards their future societies. Many Japanese people, for instance, now hold gloomy views of the declining Japanese economy and diminishing national power due to the continually falling birthrate and the onset of population aging. Such pessimistic views, however, are neither accurate nor sensible, since they will not inspire any positive action towards overcoming the anticipated problems. If "falling birthrates and an aging society" are such a discouraging prospect, would people prefer that the demographic change were to progress in the opposite direction? In other words, leading to a society with a growing birthrate and shorter life expectancy, which is hardly desirable. Since demographic changes have profound implications for all of human society and civilization, participants in the Conference believe that we must precisely distinguish each of the multi-layered implications of falling birthrates and aging society.

As participants in the Awaji Conference, we are in agreement that falling birthrates and an aging society represent not simply a problem unique to Japan, but a common problem in Asia and the world. So far, falling birthrates and aging society has been considered as a problem that is more common among advanced countries. Close examination of demographic changes in Asia, however, raises a question to this common notion. To interpret the world demographic trends accurately, and to understand trends in Japan from global perspectives so as to discover real challenges to cope with, the organizers of the Awaji Conference have invited specialists on the demographics of Asia Pacific countries to hold two-day meetings comprising presentations and discussions.

The participants have agreed that rather than aggregating the concepts of falling birthrates and population aging, we must first distinguish between "falling birthrates," "population aging" and "aging society," since each has different meaning.

"Falling birthrates" comprises the problem of lowering fertility rates, or the average number of children born to mothers during their reproductive life. In nine Asian countries, total fertility rates are below 2.1, the replacement level that exactly balances births and deaths. Japan's fertility rate has dropped to as low as 1.25, a level which astonished Japanese people significantly. South Korea, however, has outpaced Japan with the decline in its fertility rate, which has reached as low as 1.08. The average fertility rate of Northeast Asia (north of China and Taiwan) is 1.8, while that of Southeast Asia is 2.5 and that of South and Central Asia remains at 3.2. The high fertility rate in South and Central Asia is attributable to the fact that several countries maintain high fertility rates, including Afghanistan, the rate of which is 6.0.

Many people interpret this as meaning that in a long-term perspective, falling birthrates will result in diminishing the young labor force, which in turn will diminish social vitality. At the Awaji Conference, however, Dr. Andrew Mason, a professor of the University of Hawaii and an authority on population changes, discussed positive elements of falling birthrates. He introduced a new concept called "first and second demographic dividends." According to Dr. Mason, the first demographic dividend characterizes the period in which the number of family members to be supported decreases due to falling birthrates, while the producing population however remains at high levels. During this period, which continues for a few decades, per capita income increases to a high level.

In Japan, for instance, the fertility rate decreased to below 2.1 (the replacement level) in 1957. At that time, many Japanese teenagers moved from their home villages to work in large cities immediately after graduating from junior or senior high schools. For several decades, despite the lowering fertility rate, Japan's population continued to grow due to the large female population of reproductive age. In other words, Japan's population continued to increase, driven by "population momentum." It took 48 years before Japan's population finally began declining.

During the last 48 years, concurrently with falling birthrates, population aging has rapidly advanced in Japanese society. Needless to say, population aging is primarily boosted by growing life expectancy, which Japanese society should be proud of. Meantime, the elderly tend to save substantial amounts of money to prepare for their elongated life after retirement. At the Awaji Conference, the speaker suggested that if the wealth accumulated by the elderly is used effectively, within two decades from now Japanese society will be able to enjoy the "second demographic dividend." Since so many factors determine economic trends, it is difficult to assert to what degree the accumulated wealth of the elderly will invigorate the Japanese economy. Dr. Mason's suggestion, however, embraces a valuable suggestion: rather than giving way to the assumption that Japan's economy is doomed to diminish because of the falling birthrates and population aging, we should explore new potential in the present historical development, and find realistic ways to realize that potential.

Before long, following Japan, many countries in Asia and other parts of the world will experience aging population. Accordingly, how Japan will address the aging of its population and the advent of aging society will have profound implications for other societies in the world. In other words, Japan is given an opportunity to demonstrate a model of an aging society. If Japan can develop an excellent model, which other parts of the world can follow, Japan's commitments will be valued as a historical achievement in world civilization.

What elements are essential for Japan to address falling birthrates and aging population as a pioneer in this era of demographic changes? Firstly, we must abandon the conventional employment system that automatically forces employees to retire at the age of 60, or any other fixed age. Given the elongated average life expectancy, which has reached 80 years, Japanese society should offer working opportunities to the elderly who enjoy good health and who have the will and ability to continue to work. Elderly people should be given such opportunities, regardless of their age. Since the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868 ? 1912), human resources have been regarded as the only major resources available in this country, which has few natural resources and limited land area for agriculture. On this recognition, Japanese people have long been committed to human resource development. Fortunately, Japanese elderly people are highly motivated to work, a fact that has been confirmed in surveys of the elderly in various countries. Accordingly, it is essential to seek effective use of these elderly human resources. Rather than regarding the elderly as dependents on the younger generations, we must develop social systems that allow the elderly to work and support the Japanese society, if so they desire. Otherwise, Japanese society will diminish in tandem with population aging. Given the increase of the elderly population, the entire society and enterprises must regard elderly people as essential players in business and public activities.

Secondly, we must work to improve birthrates. The conventional social practice of quitting one's job before childbirth discourages many working women, whose number is increasing, from having children, since quitting work means giving up their career development, as well as their source of income. To encourage women to give birth, it is of course meaningful that the national and local governments pay costs associated with childbirth. However, it is more critical to augment maternity and parental leave systems, so that women may continue their professional careers. It is no mere coincidence that birthrates are remarkably low in Japan and South Korea, the only two Asian countries where social practices oblige many women to quit jobs before childbirth.

Thirdly, we must promote population movement. Today, Japan's elderly (people aged 65 or older) comprise 21% of the total population. In 2050, their rate is estimated to increase to 37%. In addition to falling birthrates and growing life expectancy, the small number of immigrants is an important factor responsible for Japan's population aging. Foreign workers comprise only 0.3% of the Japanese labor force. This percentage is the lowest in the world. Up to now, the Japanese government has accepted only foreigners who have high technical skills and competency. Since many other countries also desire to invite excellent human resources from abroad, Japan has not succeeded in gaining excellent human resources. In this environment, it is noteworthy that increasing numbers of foreign women are entering Japan and South Korea through international marriages. Since Japanese society needs increasing numbers of nurses and care givers, some suggest that Japan should take in foreign workers of such professions. Although receiving foreign workers involves risks of various social problems, as this is evident in European countries, we must elaborate various measures to overcome such potential problems. On Awaji Island, where this Conference has been held, population aging imposes a serious problem on local communities. Many communities find it difficult to sustain their activities due to population aging. In some communities, it was reported that residents are unable to drive away animal pests from agricultural fields. A speaker at this Conference has suggested an idea to create on Awaji Island an "Awaji multicultural coexistence special zone," where, on an experimental basis, both Japanese and foreign residents work together to develop a multi-cultural community. Foreign workers will be invited to this special zone not only to supplement the labor force needed by the local community, but also to promote cross-cultural communication. Based on the results of this experiment, the Japanese government should develop its future immigration policies.

There is no point in denying that falling birthrates and the advent of the aging society represent a serious challenge for the people of Japan. During the Meiji Period, Japan launched its commitments to national modernization using its human capital as its most valuable resource. Ever since, human resources have always supported the country's development to advanced nationhood. At the current turning point in terms of demographic change, Japan should forge a new path by developing a new type of society where the elderly, women and foreigners are respected as essential players. If Japan succeeds in developing such a society, it can represent a model for other countries where population aging is under way. In conclusion, we, the participants of the Awaji Conference hereby declare that instead of lamenting over Japan's falling birth rates and aging society, Japanese people should work together to create a new society that has new implications for world civilization.

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