Japan’s baby drought has concerned the government for years but prime minister Fumio Kishida has now made it sound like the entire nation is on the edge of a cliff. Japan may no longer function at all, he told parliament last month, unless it reverses its population decline. “It is now or never when it comes to policies regarding births and child-rearing,” he said.
Japan is at the vanguard of demographic changes happening across the developed world, including Ireland. Life expectancy has soared over the last few decades and 28 per cent of Japanese are now 65 or older. The Lancet forecasts that the Japanese population, which peaked at 128 million five years ago, could fall to 53 million, roughly where it was a century ago. What sort of strain will this put on social services?
Alarmed, Kishida’s government says it will incentivise parenthood by upping the grant it gives to have a baby from 420,000 Japanese yen (about €3,000) to ¥500,000. Tokyo’s governor, Yukiko Koike, has also sounded an apocalyptic tone, saying that the swooning population “shakes the very foundations of our society”.
Japan is being closely watched because it is not that far ahead of its rich counterparts. Birthrates in advanced countries are tumbling across the planet. Fertility rates average 1.67 in 38 OECD countries – that’s well below what statisticians call the “replacement level” – the number of children (about 2.1) needed per woman to keep the population constant.
Japan’s fertility rate of 1.3 (2020) is about the same as China’s, and higher than Taiwan’s (1.0) and South Korea’s (0.8). It is not that much lower than largely Catholic countries Poland (1.39) and Italy (1.47) or even Ireland (1.6). Surveying Europe’s population drop, the Catholic News Agency notes fearfully that the uncertainty triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated what it calls the continent’s “demographic winter”.
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A 2020 survey in the Lancet predicted a “jaw-dropping” fall in baby numbers with 23 nations – including Spain and Japan – “expected to see their populations halve by 2100″.
Pandemic aside, this might be considered progress. As countries modernise and women gain more control over their bodies, birthrates fall. Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon to see mothers stuck in cramped homes with eight children or more. In South Korea, women had four kids on average at the beginning of the 1970s; today they have fewer than their counterparts in any other country.
Still, it is striking how Japan and South Korea (with China coming up the rear) are on the lower end of the global baby-making spectrum. One reason, say sociologists, is the strong hold of marriage in those countries. Half or more of all births now occur outside marriage in France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, says the OECD. The equivalent number in Japan and Korea is negligible.
Among countries that have reversed slightly sagging fertility rates over the last decade, the key factor, says the OECD, was more equal sharing of household and parenting duties. Some surveys suggest that when men help out more at home (assuming they can), fertility rates rise.
Yet, what’s clear is this is a complex worldwide issue. Birthrates are stubbornly resistant to government inducements. Throwing a bit of cash at young Japanese is unlikely to persuade them to magically conjure up millions more babies, say analysts. In the absence of that, there is another widely adopted way to boost populations: importing people. Just 2 per cent of Japan’s population is “foreign” compared to the 12 per cent average of OECD countries.
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It is not at all clear, however, that Japan will ever take this option. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe floated plans to bring in thousands more foreign workers but the number of foreigners living here has actually fallen in the last few years. Policymakers seem averse to mass immigration.
In the meantime, Yuriko Koike and other policymakers might ponder whether the obsession with propping up birthrates is not misplaced. We are, after all, in the midst of a climate crisis, where global resources seem stretched to the limit by our eight billion inhabitants. By most calculations, we’ll add another three billion to that before the global population peaks. As science journalist Laura Spinney notes, “it’s absurd to say that what’s lacking is babies”.