Japan's Abe: ageing, shrinking population not burden but incentive

NEW YORK: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan's ageing, shrinking population was not a burden for the world's third largest economy, but an incentive to boost productivity through innovations like robots, wireless sensors, and Artificial Intelligence.

Abe's comments on Wednesday come just days after official data showed that Japanese aged 65 and older totalled 34.6 million, or 27.3 percent of the population - a record and the highest among advanced nations.

"I have absolutely no worries about Japan's demography," Abe said in a prepared speech at a Reuters Newsmaker event, noting that nominal gross domestic product had grown despite losing 3 million working-age people over the last three years.

"Japan may be ageing. Japan may be losing its population. But, these are incentives for us," he said.

"Why? Because we will continue to be motivated to grow our productivity," Abe added, citing robots, wireless sensors, and Artificial Intelligence as among the tools to do so.

"So, Japan's demography, paradoxically, is not an onus, but a bonus," he said.

Abe has said he wants to halt the slide in Japan's population at 100 million people by 2060, about one-fifth below the current level. The government also aims to raise the fertility rate to 1.8 births per woman from 1.4 - still below the 2.1 needed to prevent a population from shrinking.

Abe has also focussed on mobilising women and the elderly to compensate for a shrinking workforce rather than tackle head-on the politically touchy topic of immigration, although some changes are being considered on that front.

Abe, who returned to office in December 2012 for a rare second term pledging to reboot the economy with his "Abenomics" mix of ultra-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms, reiterated that the economy remained his top priority.

Critics worry Abe will instead devote his main attention to trying to revise Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, even as Abenomics seems to be running out of steam.

In a closely watched move, the Bank of Japan earlier on Wednesday added a long-term interest rate target to its massive asset-buying programme, overhauling its policy framework and re-committing to reaching its 2 percent inflation target as quickly as possible.

The prime minister also said his government would seek quick approval by parliament of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact and urged the United States to do the same.

"Please do ratify the TPP," Abe said. "We are simply waiting for you to take a leadership role. 'Come along, America', should be my own message to you."

US President Barack Obama's administration intends to make a final full-court push to convince Republican leaders in the US Congress to approve the 12-nation trade deal in a "lame duck" session after the November 8 presidential election.

Both Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate, and Republican candidate Donald Trump are opposed to the pact, which is unpopular with US labour unions and environmental groups.

Abe also made a pitch for Japan's high-tech "maglev" railway, suggesting once again that the technology, which Central Japan Railway Company (JR Tokai) aims to use to link the cities of Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027, would be a good fit for the New York to Washington route.

"The distance between Tokyo and Nagoya is almost the same as that between New York and DC," Abe said. "And by the way, you could do the same thing here with the maglev technology that is there for you to get."