Japan's plummeting birth rates mean emptier classrooms and not enough workers to look after the increasingly elderly population.
Japan's leaders are working on raft of new measures to encourage citizens to get married and have children in a bid to boost the countries flagging birth rate. With fewer babies being born and a rapidly ageing population, Japan is facing an unprecedented demographic crisis with vast social, economic and political problems. So, what is at the heart of the problem and what is being done to fix it? Adrian Brown has been to the shrinking down of Nanmoku to find out.
REPORTER: Adrian Brown
It's 7am in the mountain village of Nanmoku, announced with typical Japanese eccentricity by the town alarm clock. 7-year-old Yosuke Iwai and his brother and sister are off to school.
CHILDREN (Translation): Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Nanmoku Elementry School dwarfs the houses around it. There used to be over 1200 students here. Now, there are only 37.
TEACHER (Translation): Now, sit down. Let's move on.
Yosuke Iwai is in first grade. He has been top of his class all year. But there's a simple reason for that - he is the only pupil.
YOSUKE IWAI (Translation): If I write the wrong answer, I'll be in trouble.
I enjoy being the best, sometimes I feel sad, I feel lonely. My teacher is kind. It is lonely being the only one but I enjoy school.
MASUDA MITSUNOBU, HEADMASTER (Translation): The good side is that we can teach thoroughly as there is only one pupil.
Headmaster, Masuda Mitsunobu, concedes that Yosuke Iwai's isolated lessons aren't without challenges.
MASUDA MITSUNOBU (Translation): The bad side is that, because teaching is done one-to-one, there can be over-teaching and a group program is not possible. It is difficult to arrange group learning or sport for him.
It's only at recess and lunch that Yosuke Iwai gets to play with his friends, for how much longer is unclear. With the entire population of the town slipping away, the future of the school is hanging in the balance.
REPORTER: What is the reason for that big decrease? One reason, as far as Nanmoku is concerned, is a lack of employment. Because they can't find a job here, parents leave Nanmoku and settle elsewhere. As a result we have less and less children.
MASUDA MITSUNOBU (Translation): One reason, as far as Nanmoku is concerned, is a lack of employment. Because they can't find a job here, parents leave Nanmoku and settle elsewhere. As a result we have less and less children. As long as there is at least one child, Nanmoku village has a school. But if there is no child in the village and there is no need for a school, it will close temporarily.
Every year, fewer babies are being born and more and more young people are leaving. Hundreds of homes and businesses are abandoned. Left behind, are the elderly. More than half of the population is over the age of 65.
MASUDA MITSUNOBU (Translation): That we have few schoolchildren is a problem for this village, but Nanmoku is a small example of the whole of Japan and I think what is happening here will happen in other areas of Japan.
For almost 40 years, Tomio Ichikawa worked in Nanmoku's once thriving timber industry.
TOMIO ICHIKAWA (Translation): My orders these days are small renovations, small changes in parts of the house. You know, improvements; they are very small jobs - there are no more orders for new houses in this village, so small builders working alone like me can't get work anymore.
REPORTER: If the population keeps diminishing the way it is, are you worried that the village is simply going to die out?
TOMIO ICHIKAWA (Translation): we know that the population here is definitely shrinking by almost 100 per year. Our population of 2000 will be gone in 20 years. I can only continue my business while there are people, so I have my anxieties.
Tomio invites me to meet his family. He only married four years ago and says he and his wife are too old to have children of their own. The couple care for his elderly parents.
MRS ICHIKAWA (Translation): I used to prepare food for children's lunches at school, school lunches; that was my job, to cook lunches for school children. Just in this village there used to be about 1400 children. It's a problem - it's lonely. It's lonely when the young people are gone;
In bustling Tokyo, there's little sense of the impending crisis. But some experts warn, that within a millennium the Japanese people themselves could be extinct.
REPORTER: Why arn't Japanese having more babies?
MAN (Translation): It's about money, the supporting social systems are weak but the money issues are perhaps the most important. Also, you lose your free time once you have a baby.
WOMAN (Translation): I am worried, without young people, we won't be able to create a future.
Today, more than half of Japanese women are still single by the time they're 30. Kaoru Arai is a professional harpist. She epitomises the country's new breed of successful and financially independent women, who are putting career first and postponing marriage and motherhood.
REPORTER: Did you always think that marriage and children was a certainty?
KAORU ARAI: Yes, I've always thought that I would be a mum, you know, and I would have a family, just like my parents.
REPORTER: And now?
KAORU ARAI: I don't know. All of a sudden, I'm 32. And just it hasn't happened yet.
She says that she worries that a potential husband won't earn as much as she does and won't accept her work schedule that includes evenings and weekends.
REPORTER: But you are picky?
KAORU ARAI: I'm picky, yes, I want it all. I've waited this long, I want the right person.
REPORTER: And you want to be a successful harpist?
KAORU ARAI: Yes, yes, I want my cake and eat it too.
In a desperate move to pull the birth rate back from the brink, the Japanese government is offering cash incentives to encourage singles like Kaoru to partner up and procreate.
REPORTER: Do you worry Japan may not be around in 1,000 years?
KAORU ARAI: Yeah, not even in a thousand years, I think I read somewhere that we're going down in around a 100, you know, we'll be extinct.
REPORTER: Because nobody is having babies?
KAORU ARAI: Exactly, nobody is having babies. And I've heard, I don't know if you've heard the term - but there's a new word called social cookie. The men aren't as hungry for success or for relationships, yeah, as they were before.
REPORTER: Japanese men aren't interested in having sex?
KAORU ARAI: Nope. At least, that's what I heard.
REPORTER: So it's not just down to women - it's men have got to do their bit too?
KAORU ARAI: Definitely. They need to be, you know, more confident. They need to stop shaping their eyebrows, you know. They have to start looking more like men.
Akihiro and Yuka Arima are having a rare night out together. The couple have been married for two years, but are hesitant to start a family.
YUKA ARIMA: It's not easy for women to, you know, raise children and working at the same time.
Yuka is 27 and working for an electronics company.
YUKA ARIMA: I don't want to give up my job. I want to keep working at the same place but if I come back it my workplace after I took maternity leave, I may not have the same position, same jobs, so I worry about it.
Yuka also fears that in a culture that encourages excessive work hours, her husband's long days as a warehouse manager, will leave her holding the baby.
YUKA ARIMA: Japanese men work so hard. So my husband comes back home around 11:00pm every day.
YUKA ARIMA: Yes. So if I have a child, I have to, you know, take care of my children by myself. So it's not rare.
REPORTER: Do you think that the government needs to do more to address this problem?
AKIHIRO ARIMA: We need more government support. Many Japanese don't think it is a serious situation.
REPORTER: Do you think it's serious?
AKIHIRO ARIMA: Yes, I think it's serious. I think it's serious.
At the Eisei Hospital on the outskirts of Tokyo, it's another busy day. This is the flipside of Japan's demographic time bomb - A rapidly ageing population and a lack of staff to look after them.
EXCELSIS JOHNBORBON, HEALTH WORKER: The elderly is increasing and they need more health workers. Actually, that is their problem today.
Nurse Excelsis Johnborbon, came here three years ago from the Philippines.
EXCELSIS JOHNBORBON (Translation): To make sure it is yours, tell me your name.
Japan has a reluctance to employ foreign health workers and so he is one of the lucky ones. After three years foreign health workers are required to take an exam in Japanese.
EXCELSIS JOHNBORBON: Yes, and I am very lucky to pass that exam, but I didn't expect to pass that exam, because it was really difficult. It's like a gamble, it's like a gamble in your life.
With a failure rate of almost 90%, Excelsis Johnborbon says the exam is designed to make it almost impossible to pass. Such strict barriers to immigration mean some hospitals are so short staffed that they have no option but to close.
MIYOKO MIYAZAWA, NURSE (Translation): Hospitals are essential for any local community, so we should not close them.
Miyoko Miyazawa has been a nurse for almost 40 years. She's now an adviser to the Eisei Hospital and is a vocal proponent of Japan's need to relax its insular and restrictive immigration laws.
MIYOKO MIYAZAWA (Translation): It is important to secure workers in the shrinking population, to make sure that we have enough workers. The hospital management needs to consider it as a major issue and take necessary steps. It is becoming an urgent issue.
Japan's seemingly xenophobic reluctance to admit foreign workers, means the country is seeking an answer to its man-power shortage elsewhere. Major companies are racing to develop the robot of the future. And it's people like Hitomi Suzuki who could benefit.
REPORTER: Hitomi, what do you think of it?
HITOMI SUZUKI: It's cute.
Hitomi broke her neck in a car crash 28 years ago, she is now helping Toyota design a robot to assist the elderly and disabled with every day activities.
HITOMI SUZUKI (Translation): I can live at home alone without someone to help me and that is a really wonderful thing.
Already a range of specialised robots have been developed, from machines that help people to walk, to others that assist with mobility. Experts say this is just the beginning. But the goal of an affordable autonomous healthcare robot is still many years off.
By the middle of the century, almost half of Japan's population will be over the age of 65, something that the town of Nanmoku is already familiar with. Cafe owner, Hiroko Imai closing up after another quiet day, is worried about what the future will bring.
HIROKO IMAI, CAFÃ‰ OWNER (Translation): This situation cannot continue, we know this very well, the government or the state knows it as much as we do, but it is still not something that is easily solved.
ANJALI RAO: It is a serious issue. But there is definitely something to be said for a spot of manscaping. Our website has more of the facts and figures behind Japan's shifting demographic. Plus, give us your thoughts on any of tonight's stories.
Original Music Composed by
9th April 2013