Why Japan Can't Compete With China

Tokyo officials are relying on retirees and aging ships to fill a temporary shortfall in coast guard manpower -- a move that reveals the broader limits of Japan's capabilities.

RTR38DN3-615.jpgReuters

As China keeps extending its interests abroad, some predict that neighboring countries will form a coalition to counter it. Any of three states could take the lead on building such an alliance: India, South Korea, or Japan. Each has a different mix of technological, economic, and diplomatic power that -- when combined with the resources of other states -- might keep Beijing hemmed in, or so the theory goes.

But if there's one leading state that could be eliminated from this possibilities matrix soon, it's Japan. That's because it lacks another kind of capital -- human capital.

Japan has a population of 128 million, not even a tenth the size of China. This wouldn't be a huge problem, except that the Japanese are also a lot older: the median age there is 44.6 to China's 35.2. Even the median South Korean is much closer in age to the median Chinese than to her Japanese counterpart. 

Technology can help shore up people deficits -- automation and complex electronics beget efficiency. But only to a point. Beyond that, the need for more manpower begins to eat away at Japan's technological and industrial advantages.

And it isn't as though Japan's got the shiniest infrastructure, either. Take the country's coast guard, which offers a good example of the country's limits. For the past year, Japan has been embroiled in a major territorial dispute with China over a set of islands in the East China Sea. It's the coast guard that's shouldered much of the responsibility for standing up to China in these waters. The forces arranged on either side are tenuously balanced -- for now. But looking ahead, Tokyo officials worry they won't have enough ships to defend what they know as the Senkaku islands (or what the Chinese call the Diaoyu islands):

While [Japan's] coast guard has 51 patrol ships that are 1,000 tons or more, China already has 40 such vessels, and is making progress on converting old warships for use in patrols, in addition to building new ones. The concern for Japan is that China may quickly overtake its coast guard in the numbers of large-scale ships patrolling the East China Sea.

The natural response is to build more boats. But that'll take time -- not to mention more men. All told, it'll be about five years before the 150 new seamen and four new patrol ships Japan's ordered will be ready for service.

Japan doesn't have a half-decade to wait around. So commanders have whipped up an emergency solution: They'll bring 10 ships out of mothballs -- all of which are a quarter-century old or more -- that would otherwise be turned into scrap metal. Even better, they're going to be crewed by old people.

Okay, that's unfair. We probably aren't talking about senior citizens manning the deck guns like Peter Berg made them do in Battleship; many of these "retirees" likely ended their service at a relatively young age. Even so, the case reveals some of Japan's long-term challenges. Put simply, we're talking about a fully developed country that's approaching the limits of its human resources. This is a problem for Japan that is neither new nor going away: over the next 50 years, its population is expected to contract by another 30 percent.

Japan's existing capabilities make it a strong candidate to lead a counter-China coalition right now. But with each passing year, the country falls further behind.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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