January 10, 2011
Kimono-clad Japanese 20-year-olds take a train after a coming-of-age ceremony at a Tokyo amusement park. Japanese women can marry at 16 and men at 18, but none are considered adults until they hit 20. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA
The number of Japanese people reaching adulthood fell to a record low last year, amid growing concerns about the falling birthrate and greying of the population .
About 1.24 million men and women turned 20 – the age of majority in Japan – in the past 12 months, a fall of 30,000 from 2009, according to government figures.
Many dressed in kimonos and listened to congratulatory speeches by local dignitaries during coming-of-age day , an annual national holiday, today.
Others were expected to mark the day by legally imbibing large quantities of alcohol in the evening.
But there was little cause for celebration among government officials.
The number of new adults is half its peak of 2.46 million in 1970, and fell below 1% of the total population for first time since records began more than four decades ago.
The age group now comprises just 0.97% of Japan's total population of about 125 million.
The figures come days after reports that Japan's population suffered a record fall last year, with the number of deaths exceeding births by 123,000, the widest margin since records began in 1947.
The national institute of population and social security research says that the number of 20-year-olds is expected to fall even more rapidly over the next 30 years, sinking to just 780,000 by 2040.
The fall has been blamed on the low birthrate and the failure of successive governments to persuade young Japanese to have children .
"The pace of decline is intensifying in the youth population because fewer people are having babies, and because the generation of people who are nearing 40 are not having enough children to cause another baby boom," Kyodo News quoted an institute official as saying.
Young Japanese appear to have little appetite for marriage , let alone procreation, in the midst of another economic downturn.
A recent survey found that the number of people in their 20s and 30s still living with their parents had increased significantly in the past five years.
Among men aged 35-39 – who would normally be considered to have reached their professional prime – more than 40% still live at home, many citing job instability.
There were fewer marriages last year than at any time since 1954, and there is a noticeable shift towards living alone.
In an editorial warning that the country is ill prepared for rapid social change, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said singleton status was becoming an attractive option for many in a time of economic uncertainty.
"The decision to live alone should be respected as a lifestyle choice based on individual values," it said.
"But the grim reality is that an increasing number of young people are drifting through single life with no expectation of a stable life as a fulltime employee, discouraging them from considering marriage."
Japan's skewed demographics have yet to prompt a serious debate on how the country can maintain its economic status and care for its growing elderly population.
People aged 65 or over now make up a quarter of the population; by 2050 they will account for about 40% of the total, according to government estimates.
There is no official enthusiasm for creating more jobs, while governments have shied away from tax increases to pay for extra welfare and medical costs.
The current administration, led by the left-of-centre Democratic party, has promised to unveil comprehensive reforms of the welfare system this summer, including the possibility of unpopular tax increases.
The finance minister, Yoshihiko Noda, last week said Japan needed to broach the question of raising the consumption [sales] tax from its current 5% "in the national interest".
While some officials have suggested the tax could rise in stages, reports that the prime minister, Naoto Kan, favoured doubling it to 10% were widely believed to have contributed to his party's defeat in last summer's upper house elections.
It was telling that dog owners held an alternative coming of age ceremony at a Tokyo shrine over the weekend. The number of cats and dogs in Japan exceeded that of children under 16 in 2003, according to the Japan pet food manufacturers association. By 2009, the country's 23m cats and dogs outnumbered children in that age group by 6m.
One of the owners, whose poodle had reached the equivalent "adult" milestone of one year, said: "This dog is no different than a son, so I'm glad I can give my 'son' a celebration."