Population Control and Organized Capital — The Case of Japan

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Population Control and Organized Capital — The Case of Japan

by John Walsh

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1970, p. 20 – 25

The following is a commentary on a feature appearing in the magazine Science and dealing with the population policy of Japan.1 Since World War ll Japan has made extensive use of abortions which have been promoted and encouraged by the national Eugenic Protection Law passed in 1948. In this way Japan has curbed its population more dramatically than any other industrial nation. However in the summer of 1969, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato announced to a meeting of Japanese newspaper editors that the government would reverse its policy and henceforth strive to increase the rate of population growth. In the words of the Science article: “Sato’s statement was no irrational, off-the-cuff remark by an uninformed politician. It was based on some cautiously worded recommendations made by the Problems Inquiry Council, a cabinet-level group which includes some of Japan’s leading demographers.”

The crucial importance of a substantial level of unemployment to the advanced “free-enterprise” states is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the Science article by Philip Boffey: “Japan: A Crowded Nation Wants to Boost its Birthrate.”2 The apparent contradiction of the new Japanese policy finds its explanation in the conflict between the economic interests of a small, powerful class and the well-being of the Japanese people, a conflict which liberals euphemistically subsume under the heading of priorities. Not surprisingly, then, our liberal Science writer states the problem this way: “At the bottom the disagreement is one of priorities. Those who regard economic expansion as the greatest good want bodies to man the assembly lines. Those who are worried about overcrowding are willing to sacrifice some economic growth in return for more living space.”

Japan today is already one of the most overcrowded nations on the earth. Made up of four small islands with a total land mass of 141 thousand square miles, only 1/6 of which is arable, Japan in the 1960’s was the fifth most densely populated country in the world. Even more strikingly, the overpopulation is demonstrated by the ugly realities of daily life. For example, author Boffey, although valiantly refraining from judgements of “value”, concedes that “the congestion seems unbelievable to many Westerners” and that he personally is “appalled at the overcrowding.” He goes on to quote one of Japan’s leading public health authorities who says: “In terms of space, Japan already has too many people. If you live in Tokyo all you can find is a place to eat and a place to earn money. There is no green, no trees. I don’t feel that people are living a vary human life.” However all this is not enough for Boffey who, perhaps in an attempt to be impartial, suggests the Japanese have grown accustomed to overcrowded conditions and may even enjoy them. Basically the logic here is that the Japanese will not miss what they have never known. (By so refraining from value judgements, one can similarly conclude that the malnourished should not be fed or the enslaved freed or the diseased cured, because they are accustomed to their present state.) Concluding in this hollow vein the author even ventures that: “Perhaps future generations will enjoy living shoulder to shoulder.” And this in all seriousness!

To understand the new Japanese policy, it is necessary to grasp the pivotal role of labor in Japan’s postwar economic “miracle”.  A precise and prophetic statement of that role is the following, written in 1965:

One of the most important reasons for the rapid growth of Japanese industries during the last decade has been the transference of a large underemployed labor group from relatively unproductive tasks on farms to more productive occupations in industry. Furthermore the existence of underemployed labor in agriculture made it possible for the growing large-scale industries to recruit labor without raising wages. Now that the transition has been made, Japan may have a manpower shortage in the near future due to the decline in the birth rate and to the changes in the age composition of the population. Eventually agriculture will be unable to furnish surplus workers for industry as it previously has done … If the supply of surplus workers diminishes, rapid industrial growth may be accompanied by high wages and the gap may be reduced between the growth in productivity and the rise in wages.3

That gap has now been closed and wages are threatening to cut into profits. The problem has not escaped the anxious attention of Japan’s corporate elite. In the monthly reports of the Bank of Japan4 and in various Establishment periodicals, statements of concern like the following now appear routinely.

I may point out that there exists in all advanced countries a cycle of wage rise and price rise caused by labor shortage … Japanese managements have a serious anxiety as to how long the wage rise of over 10% can be absorbed in the years ahead … Japan is facing one of the most difficult problems in the period ahead, i.e., how can we manage to maintain international competitive power burdened as we are with an exceptionally steep wage rise.5

Now that the supply of labor is more limited that it was when the agricultural sector provided a youthful inexpensive surplus, demand is outrunning supply and wages are on the rise.6 This development is potentially disastrous for Japan’s further expansion in the world market. Confronted with the choice between cutting into corporate profits and thus losing some ground on export trade versus increasing the labor force to lower costs, the Japanese government has opted for the latter. And in doing so, it obviously serves the interests of the industrialists rather than the people.

In fact an argument can easily be made that the Japanese government originally curbed population growth only because “a sizable portion of the nation’s capital resources would have been used to support new additions to the population and would not have been available for economic recovery and industrial investment.” In this way what appears at first as an about-face emerges as a very consistent policy: When population growth absorbs national income and threatens investment and industrial expansion, the birth rate is to be decreased, and when population decline increases the cost of labor, cuts into profits and prevents industrial expansion, the birth rate is to be increased. In neither case is government’s highest priority the welfare of the people. Profits and expansion are of primary importance and are so considered in determining national policy.

However, it is not only the inhumanity of the Japanese policy at which criticism is to be directed; it is the tone of the entire Science article which under the guise of objectivity glosses over the underlying meaning of this policy and frequently ends in the type of absurdity which lauds “shoulder-to-shoulder” living conditions. This sort of “objectivity” is wellknown and accepted unquestioningly among liberal American intellectuals. In fact a good example appears in Boffey’s article in the person of an “expert in this country” who is dutifully trotted out to justify a policy of population increase. According to “expert” Ansley Coale, “a stationary population is not likely to be receptive to change and would have a strong tendency towards nostalgia and conservatism.” In this statement there is a strong tendency towards nonsense. Professor Coale goes on to say that a society of this sort would not offer “a reasonable expectation of advancement of authority with age” since there would be essentially the same number of 50-year-olds as 20-year-olds. However for most workers in industrial society this consideration is totally extraneous since they in no meaningful way advance their position between the ages of 20 and 50. Moreover,Coale’s argument carried to its logical conclusion means that we must continue ad infinitum to increase the population so that elders will always retain a strong sense of self importance! That such madness should receive a serious hearing is shocking; that it should be quoted on the pages of a journal entitled Science is an hypocrisy. It is even sadder that most scientists who read the technical pages of Science with a fiendishly critical eye are totally blind when confronted with arguments such as Coale’s. Such imperceptiveness borders on brutality, for the issue here is not trivial. It involves the welfare of over 100 million people in the second wealthiest capitalist state on earth. Professor Coale is , however, not the only social scientist to offer an opinion on the matter. A postscript appeared in Science several months after the Boffey article in the form of a technical comment by Alan Sweezy, a devoted Keynesian from Cal. Tech. He begins by pointing out that it is consummately rational “ in the interest of combatting inflation … (to use) … fiscal and monetary policy to create a bit more of a labor surplus.”7 In other words when full employment undermines the growth of the economy and hence the position of a nation’s industrialists on the world market, it is reasonable to “use” a labor surplus to improve that position. The sanity of an economic system that sets such standards of “reasonableness” must be called into question. For in human terms such a policy means that a certain portion of the populace is forced to forego income (and hence the decencies of food, clothing, housing and education) so that inflation will not damage the endless expansion and worldwide competitive edge so frantically sought after by the Establishment.

But despite his easy acquiescence in the face of “short-range” atrocities perpetrated by fiscal and monetary methods, even Alan Sweezy is at a loss to understand Japan’s population policy which is not treated in the approved Keynesian canons. According to Sweezy ” a shortage of labor is the same as an abundance of capital” in the long-run or structural sense. While labor scarcity entails more rapidly rising wages thus imperilling overall expansion, it also means that per capita GNP and hence the welfare of the populace will be on the rise. Hence from the viewpoint of human well-being, the present Japanese policy is absurd.

Sweezy himself makes a pointed statement of the obvious contradiction in all of this:”Surely no democratic government if it understood clearly what it was doing would attempt to keep capital from becoming more abundant relative to labor.” Hence the horns of a dilemma. Either the government is ignorant of the consequences of its decisions or it is not a democratic government al all. Sweezy of course accepts the former alternative. But we need only remind ourselves that the inner and upper councils of the Sato government are filled to overflowing with economists of Sweezy’s ilk. Ignorance of the subtleties of the almighty GNP is certainly not attributable to them. Then, mirabile dictu, we are impaled on the dilemma’s other horn. Japan’s “democratic” government patterned after that of the United States is only an illusory democracy. This of course is really no surprise. Both American and Japanese governments pander to the wealthy. the powerful, those whose sole function is to possess and increase it.

Two considerations emerge from the treatment accorded the Japanese population problem by Science. First, the precarious fault cutting across capitalist society, that between capital and labor, has up to this moment been covered over by neverending expansion and constant war. Due to the developing strength of the socialist nations, the era of internecine capitalist conflict and ever-widening markets may be at an end, and the fault must again come rumbling to the surface. For now a national capital can only preserve its world competitive position by cutting into wages through the implementation of substantial unemployment. Japan has chosen to do this in a rather blatant way. While other national capitals have resorted to other more covert ploys which have the same effect. Second, economists like Alan Sweezy and social scientists like Alan Coale all too often obfuscate broader human and social issues. They are at best technicians hired to prop up an exhausted social order with all its injustices. At worst they are mere apologists, glib men, who receive token privileges to legitimize an ugly social system. Members of the scientific community and people everywhere should not be cowed by their supposed expertise. Intelligent judgment of their inanities is needed now more than ever before.

Boffey is correct when he concludes that in all of this “there are costs involved and someone will have to pay them.” And as usual it is not the wealthy elite that pays, it is the people. And it is through the instrument of government policy in this case that people will pay. Is it any wonder then that Japanese students are continually in rebellion ? Is it a surprise that they and their contemporaries in other advanced capitalist nations increasingly feel that capitalist democracy as a rule is nothing but a sham and that “representative” governments represent the interests of the corporate elite and their colleagues in government?

>> Back to Vol. 2, No. 4 <<



  1. P.M. Boffey, Science, 167 , 960 (1970)
  2. Ibid. Unless otherwise noted, all further quotations are taken from this same source.
  3. J.E. Holler, Population Trends and Economic Development in the Far East, Population Research Project, The George Washington University, Washington,D.C. 1965,pp.7-8.
  4. For Example: Bank of Japan’s MonthlyEconomic Report for May, 1969. In Daily Summary of the Japanese Press (American Embassy,Tokyo,July2, 1969).
  5. T. Ihara, “Japan’s Economic Position in the World”, Pacific Community: An Asian Quarterly Review, 1, 4 (1970), p. 632. Of course Ihara tries to pin the entire price rise on the press for higher wages. Actually the effect of the wage rise is to cut into the enormous profits reaped from already excessive prices set by monopoly capital. To preserve these bloated profits, prices must then be raised even higher. cf. Michal Kalecki, Theory of Economic Dynamics (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1968).

    Even more interesting are Ihara’s further comments: ” Also from a long term point of view, we are concerned about how we can maintain people’s will to work. The contemporary generation have been brought up in a period of overemployment and are not aware of the danger of unemployment. They are gradually becoming contented with their clothing, foods and dwelling. Now the desire for material affluence has ceased to be a strong incentive for work. Then where shall we seek such and incentive?” In other words modern expansionistic capitalism needs the stick of threatened unemployment as well as the carrot of material well-being if it is to maintain its frantic pace. Alienated labor given material concessions may not be very productive in the long run. Meanwhile the pace and insecurity of the present system are producing psychological wreckage of enormous proportions

  6. Apparently the only reserves of labor left consist of older workers, many still on the farms, who are apparemtly less productive and/or more demanding of higher wages. Boffey quotes the economist who heads the Family Planning Federation of Japan: ” The industrialist s say that the labor shortage is severe. But I say what is deficient is young labor which is very cheap. So all we can say is that we lack cheap labor, only that.” Regardless of the importance of the age factor in all of this, the point of the new policy is to prevent further wage increases by providing additional labor reserves.
  7. A.R. Sweezy, Science, 169,97 (1970). All All further quotations attributed to Sweezy are drawn from this source.