Facts and figures surrounding Japan’s declining fertility rate

by Reiji Yoshida

The total fertility rate of women in Japan has been declining for nearly three decades.

But public interest in the statistic has been rekindled as the rationale behind recently passed reforms to the pension system depends on future population trends.

What has added fuel to the flames is the suspicion that the government may have delayed the release of the latest fertility figure, which marked a record low, until its controversial pension reform legislation was enacted.

Following are some basic facts concerning the TFR and its implications for Japan’s graying society and the public pension system.

Q: What is the total fertility rate?

The TFR is widely misunderstood to be the number of children that an average woman bears.

In fact, it is an indicator that measures the mean number of children a woman would have in her lifetime if she were to live through her reproductive years and bear children in line with age-specific birth rates in a given year.

Japan’s TFR is ascertained by calculating the average number of babies born to a woman at each age between 15 and 49, and adding all of the age-specific fertility rates in a given year.

Using the TFR, it is possible to compare the general fertility tendencies of women of different countries in a given year regardless of differences in their female population pyramids.

In 2002, when Japan’s TFR was 1.3, the TFR was 2.1 for the United States, 1.7 for Australia and 1.6 for Britain, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, an affiliate of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Germany and Italy both had TFRs of 1.3.

Q: What is the current situation concerning Japan’s TFR?

According to the institute’s calculations, as of 2002 Japan needed a TFR of 2.07 or higher to prevent its population from shrinking.

However, despite government predictions to the contrary, the figure has been in a general spiral since 1974.

Japan’s TFR for 2003, released June 10, was 1.29, down from 1.32 registered the previous year and the figure that formed the basis for the government’s pension reform plan, which also said that the figure would rebound to 1.39 in future.

By prefecture, Tokyo had the lowest TFR at 1, while Okinawa had the highest at 1.72.

At the same time, when it comes to how many children a woman will actually bear, the institute estimates that a woman who was 35 years old in 2000 would have an average of 1.65 children during her lifetime. If the calculations are limited to married women, the figure is probably around 1.82, one official said.

Q What impact will a low TFR have on Japanese society and the nation’s pension system?

The current trend indicates that Japan’s population will contract, and this in turn means that future generations will be saddled with a heavier social security burden.

According to the institute’s medium variant scenario, Japan’s population will be almost halved to 64 million in 2100 after peaking at 127.7 million in 2006.

Based on this projection, the government plans to raise pension premiums every year until 2017 to 18.3 percent of the annual income of salaried workers from the current 13.58 percent while gradually reducing benefits.

But whether this plan is realistic has been thrown into question, because the revised TFR for the years 2001 through 2003 have turned out to be lower than government projections.

Q For the past two decades, government TFR predictions have proved to be too optimistic. Why?

The institute said it failed to foresee emerging changes in women’s lifestyles.

Signs of those changes were not seen in responses to its questionnaires asking how many babies women want to have, nor in any other scientific data available at the times the projections were made, according to the institute.

In the early 1990s, the drop in the TFR was widely considered temporary because it was seen as the result of women with higher academic backgrounds putting off marriage until later in life, the institute said.

Then, an unexpected increase in women who do not marry at all led it to revise its prediction downward in 1997. This was followed by another downward revision in 2002 as it turned out that married couples began having fewer children.

Q: Will Japan’s TFR continue to decline?

The government doesn’t seem to think so.

The medium variant projections by the institute in a 2002 study on birth trends showed that the TFR would hit bottom at 1.3 in 2007 and gradually recover to around 1.39 by 2050.

Institute officials say this is because they believe a certain portion of the female population is simply postponing childbearing until they are older, and have not decided to have fewer children.

Those women will eventually have babies and help boost the TFR to some extent, according to the institute.

But given that the TFR of 1.29 for 2003 is already lower than the lowest figure projected by the institute, some argue that this scenario is too optimistic.