Part of the joy of being in Japan and not speaking Japanese is sometimes just trying to figure out what's going on. For example, take this video of a colorfully dressed troupe of cheerleaders. Maybe they’re a new J-pop band? Or maybe they're with a sports team?
Actually, they’re promoting the national census. Japan’s census, which is conducted every five years, will begin next month, and government-funded ads featuring the cheerleaders—as well as a kind of creepy animated baby—are popping up around the country.
But it’s not just funny advertising: Demographers predict that this census will continue to show the country’s steep population decline. Japan's population is decreasing and getting older faster than almost any other country in the world, a long-term trend that will have huge impacts on young people especially. According to the latest data, 26% of Japan is senior citizens, the highest number since the country first started keeping records.
So the Statistics Bureau, the government agency running and promoting the census, is determined to count every person it can. The marketing strategies might be part of that. As the cheerleaders put it, “The population census will shape Japan’s future!” (That's according to a translated transcript the bureau sent me.)
The census will be held online for the first time this year, with people having an option to fill it out on a computer or a smartphone. Census takers will then deliver paper forms to everyone else. Officials estimate that more than 10 million households will complete the census online, “which makes it one of the largest online undertakings in the world,” according to the slick new census website.
The census even has an official mascot, "Census-kun." (The rest of the YouTube video above depicts the very dramatic story of his creation.) In addition to potentially inspiring nightmares, he focuses attention on the fact that the birth rate in Japan has gone way down. People are living longer and having fewer babies, two trends that combine to make the country age rapidly, says Jeffrey Kingston, a professor at Temple University's Tokyo campus who studies Japan's demographics.
As a result, the country's welfare system is straining. If current trends continue, young, working-age people in Japan are likely to be stuck funding benefits for more elderly people. As a young person, "you'd be better off burying your money in the backyard than if you contributed it to the pension system," Kingston said.
Reforming the safety net has been a controversial issue for the national government, which is already deeply in debt, due in part to its ballooning pension and healthcare obligations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing policies to encourage more women to stay in the workforce while having children. His government has also considered increasing immigration to the very homogeneous country.
And other countries are going to follow Japan in aging. "We’re sort of the guinea pig," Kingston said. "A lot of societies are interested in what aging policies work and which don't work, and we’re going to be finding out."
The preliminary results of the census will be released in February, with more detailed data available in October 2016. "Demographics is pretty predictable," Kingston said. "I don’t think there’s going to be any huge surprise."
TL;DR? Here's a cheerleader telling you everything you need to know about Japan's population trend: Old people up, young people down.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.