The Japan Times reports:

Japan’s population has shrunk for the third year running, with the elderly making up a quarter of the total for the first time, government data showed Tuesday.

The number of people in the world’s third-largest economy dropped by 0.17 percent or 217,000 people, to 127,298,000 as of last Oct. 1, the data said. This figure includes long-staying foreigners.

The number of people aged 65 or over rose by 1.1 million to 31.9 million, accounting for 25.1 percent of the population, it said.

While the government data shows that this is the third year in a row that deaths exceeded births in Japan, this is not a new phenomenon, as the Wilson Quarterly has reported that deaths exceeded births in the country as early as 2006. WQ reported on the causes:

Unshackled from the obligations of the old family order, Japan’s young men and women have plunged into a previously unknown territory of interpersonal options. One consequence has been a headlong “flight from marriage,” as Australian demographer Gavin Jones describes it. Increasingly, men and women in modern Japan have been postponing marriage—or avoiding it altogether. Between 1965 and 2005, for example, the proportion of never-married women in their late thirties shot up from six percent to 18 percent. Among men, the proportion rose even more steeply, from four percent to 30 percent. Many of these single adults still have not left home, creating a new breed of parasaito shinguru, or “parasite singles.”

Even as young Japanese increasingly avoid marriage, divorce is further undermining the country’s family structure. Just as being unmarried at prime child-rearing age is no longer a situation requiring explanation, divorce now bears no stigma. Between 1970 and 2009, the annual tally of divorces nearly tripled. The number of new marriages, meanwhile, slumped by nearly a third. According to one study, a married woman’s probability of eventual divorce in Japan has leapt from under 10 percent in 1965 to about 30 percent today—higher than in such “postmodern” Scandinavian societies as Norway and Finland.

As the flight from marriage and the normalization of divorce has recast living arrangements in Japan, the cohort of married fertile adults has plummeted in size. Although the number of men and women between the ages of 20 and 50 was roughly the same in 2010 and 1970, about 10 million fewer were married in 2010. Nowadays, the odds of being married are barely even within this key demographic group. And marriage is the only real path to parenthood. Unwed motherhood remains, so to speak, inconceivable because of the enduring disgrace conferred by out-of-wedlock births. In effect, the Japanese have embraced voluntary mass childlessness.

And eschewing children is nothing new in Japan, as almost immediately after World War II, a large cohort of women of child-bearing age (nearly a fifth) did not have kids. The roots of this rapidly aging, and now dying, society are very deep indeed, both historically (relatively speaking) and culturally. Once a country begins depopulating, it is very hard to reverse.