East Asia: Population and the Quality of Life

Because East Asia has changed so much, it's hard to imagine how different the region looked 50 years ago. Today, some of the countries and cities of the region are among the most prosperous in the world. In Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the statistics on per capita income, length of life, and literacy are all high. Despite recent problems, the economies are generally prosperous, as can be seen in the glittering shopping districts and luxurious residential neighborhoods of Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei. But it wasn't always that way. If the big problem of the past was industrializing, today it is managing population.

Patterns of Population

Many of the countries of East Asia have been so successful in dealing with the basic problems of feeding their people and industrializing that they now face other problems. Several of these problems are caused by the expanding populations in the region.


At the middle of the 20th century, the nations of East Asia ranked among the least developed in the world. In fact, statistics on health, literacy, fertility, and economics in East Asia mirrored those of the poorest region of the world—sub-Saharan Africa. Widespread poverty was the norm. Life expectancy was short. Fertility rates were high, as were infant and maternal death rates. In 1950, East Asian women often married young and gave birth to six children on average during their lifetimes. Most economies remained rural.

Addressing Population Problems

Policy makers in the region understood that population control was key to solving a wide range of social and economic woes. Among the successful programs were those that stressed education and family planning.


Unrestricted population growth put tremendous strain on the quality of life in the region and on the environment. Food production on existing farmland was barely adequate.

The absence of basic sanitation fouled the region's water supplies. In some countries, such as China, the water tables were drained to dangerously low levels. Fortunately, the governments of East Asia recognized this catastrophe-in-the-making. They moved quickly to reverse course.


Aggressive family planning programs were begun in the region. Birth rates began leveling off and then dropping. By the year 2000, women were marrying much later and giving birth to an average of 2.5 children. In China alone, the birth rate dropped from 6.22 children per woman in 1950–1955 to just 1.82 in the year 2000.


This drop in birth rates, combined with industrialization, led to fast economic growth. By the 1990s, the economies of East Asia were booming, transforming social and economic conditions. In just over a generation, the region's quality of life has improved to the point where life expectancy and literacy rates are among the highest in the world.

The Quality of Life

Although these changes in East Asia have been dramatic, they have not solved all of the region's problems.

Some countries in the region, such as China and Japan, are among the most populous in the world. Furthermore, life expectancy in East Asia has increased from 41 years in the period 1950–1955 to 69 years in the year 2000.


The huge populations of the region continue to put pressure on the environment. Even if China were to maintain a modest growth rate of one percent a year, it would still add 13 million people to its population annually.

The growing populations are concentrated in the cities of the region, where they must be provided with housing, sanitation, and transportation. Pollution, overcrowding, and flooding are all problems that are made worse by an expanding population.

However, not all family planning programs were well received. Some citizens criticized China's one-child-per-family policy as harsh and an assault on their rights. In the face of such criticism, the region's family planning efforts were expanded.

Despite these difficulties, East Asia has shown the world that rapid social and economic progress are possible. This requires that people and their leaders join hands with the world community to make difficult decisions and put in place sound policies.