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Japan and its birth rate: the beginning of the end or just a new beginning?

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“Catastrophe” is one of the words most frequently used to describe Japan’s demographic situation: an aging society full of sexless couples having fewer and fewer babies. Fertility is below replacement level, births are being delayed — but is the situation as desperate as the media paints it? No, the data suggest. In fact, the picture is improving.

Japan has never made it into the “top 10″ of countries with the lowest total fertility rates (TFR) — the average number of children a woman bears over her lifetime. And since 2005, when it bottomed out at 1.26 births per woman, the TFR has been slowly but steadily growing, although the government is predicting what it hopes is a slight blip — a 0.01-point dip — for 2015. According to the World DataBank, in 2013 (the latest year for which full data — not just estimates — are available) Japan, with its 1.43 TFR, was doing better than South Korea and Singapore (both 1.19), Hong Kong (1.12) and Germany (1.38).

Media like to cite declining births in absolute numbers or birth rates (the number of children born per 1,000 population). The results inspire juicy headlines such as “Japan suffers lowest number of births on record” and “Alarm bells ring over falling birth rate.” However, drops in these figures do not necessarily mean that women are having fewer babies. If the pool of potential mothers is shrinking, the absolute number of children will also decrease compared to previous years. Japanese women of ages 35-39 outnumber those 30-34, 30-34 outnumbers 25-29, and so on. Add in the ever-increasing number of elderly living longer than almost anywhere else on the planet and birth rates drop as well.

Japan is not unique. Other high-income countries also have TFRs lower than the global average and below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. But as the latest data show, in the majority of them the TFR is rising.

The United Nations estimates that this trend will continue and Japanese will be producing 1.72 babies per woman in 30 years. This is, however, still far short of the replacement level of 2.1, and Japan is projected to lose about 15 percent of its population by 2050.

But there is one caveat: U.N. projections are based on the demographic transition theory, which suggests that human populations transition from high to low birth and mortality rates as they industrialize and modernize. Once the transition is complete, the theory says, TFR does not change much. But this idea has been challenged by demographer Mikko Myrskyla.

According to Myrskyla, when a country’s human development index (HDI), a composite measure of a country’s achievements in health, education and wealth, climbs over 0.86, its fertility starts to grow. If he is right, Japan, with its HDI of 0.89 (as of 2013), is going through a transition to higher TFR. Unfortunately, it is not possible to foresee how far this will go, as there are no historical precedents of long-term fertility rebound. But for now, let’s cherish this piece of much-needed good news.

The bad news is there is no cookie-cutter solution when it comes to sustaining this trend. The fertility growth trend started in Europe almost 20 years ago, but “we do not find a completely consistent pattern for Western European countries,” Myrskyla admits. Japan will have to find its own way.

While there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for boosting fertility, current trends in European countries suggest that gender equity might be a key to higher birth rates. As opposed to gender equality, which is based on identical treatment of men and women, gender equity requires fair and just treatment of genders depending on their needs. According to Thomas Anderson and Hans-Peter Kohler, researchers from the Population Studies Center, the latter is especially important within families.

Economic development leads to better access to education and employment for women, but household norms and expectations change at a much slower pace. As a result, the family-work conflict intensifies and women delay marriage and childbirth or remain childless. This is what Japan is experiencing now.

However, hitting this “tipping point” may be exactly what is needed to trigger social changes. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the mean age for first marriages was 30.9 for men and 29.3 for women in 2013. Declining birth rates lead to a shortage of brides: Men tend to marry younger women, but each younger generation has fewer people. Also, there are more men than women in all age brackets. Thus, there are more bachelors than brides, which gives women greater bargaining power — a perfect setup for the gender revolution.

Change is already in the air. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ “Survey on time use and leisure activities,” men spent an average of 27 minutes a day on home-related work in 1996, as compared with 49 minutes in 2001 and 69 minutes in 2011. This is still a lot less than the more than three hours women spend on such chores, but it indicates a shift in values from traditional to egalitarian. And egalitarian families have been shown to have more children than traditional ones — even though they have them later.

Have you ever noticed that marriages and children come in waves? From being surrounded by carefree childless couples, within a couple of years it can seem as if the majority of your friends are suddenly married with kids on the horizon. Perhaps counterintuitively, marriage and childbirth decisions are affected by the environment. So if we stop repeating the mantra that Japanese are not having babies, the current fertility rebound might just speed up.

Low fertility is still an important problem, but Japan is showing signs of recovery. It will take time, and political and cultural changes, but the population will stabilize. In the meantime, Japan faces a choice between growing small gracefully, turning to large-scale immigration to fill in the gaps or putting its faith in mass robotization. Good luck with that one.

Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Ideas and comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Paul Midford

    While I think this article is right to note that Japan’s demographic decline is not as bad as it is often claimed to be in the media, this article is wishful thinking rather than serious journalism: “let’s cherish this piece of much-needed good news…So if we stop repeating the mantra that Japanese are not having babies, the current fertility rebound might just speed up.”

  • Jr. Mackeltom

    robotization is already happening. Japan already have decided not to turn to immigration to fill the gaps of lower labour shortages coming in the future. Japanese government did announce in 2015 that bringing more women into the labour force, increasing the retirement age and mass technological domination of the Japanese workforce, is how Japan is going to fill the labour shortage gap.

    I am not opposing immigration, but nationally, economically, socially, culturally, religiously & traditionally immigration is not an answer. Immigration is a failed system of economics in fighting a declining birth rates & aging population.

    • Erik Jacobs

      Immigration on large scale is just asking for social unrest and problems. One only needs to look at large parts of Western Europe to see the results.

      Short term work visa’s are something that can be managed, but long term import of labour is a very bad idea.

      • Jr. Mackeltom

        It’s Japan we’re talking about not Europe. Japanese will not open their boarders to immigrants in large amounts, but in a manageable way where one set leaves before the other set arrives.

        There are many bigots who wants Japan to open it’s boaders, in Europe & America. But the Japanese own their country and so they will decide it for them selves.

        I am from Nakatsu, Oita (leaving this year as my visa is at it’s limit). Three things that I can say from living here for 6 years is that Japanese will not accept “Gajin” & will not open immigration to more foreigners (same was announced by Japanese goverment in 2015). Japanese fertility rates & falling birth rates are not as bad as people in the west think it is, in a way the Japanese population is stabilising and is getting cured from “overpopulation”. However fertility rates are improving and will eventually have a stabilised population which could be either stable/growing.

        Japanese way of dealing with falling birth rates and fertility rates is the best way currently.

      • Marco Olozabal

        Oh good god no. Don’t do what the Germans did.

      • Marco Olozabal

        Oh good god no. Don’t do what the Germans did.

  • PRADEEP CHATURVEDI

    JAPAN need not worry about workers as INDIA has abundant manpower which it can supply for at least a decade. Japan is heaven on earth. It may be going through a demographic transition as any most developed country would do. JAPAN should allow Indian on short-term tourist cum work VISAS for say one year two year as it will solve many of its labour crisis.

    • Jr. Mackeltom

      Lol India ? Japan will probably turn to China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam & Thailand if they want to increase temporary foreign workers.

      China is the country that provides most of the foreign labour to Japan, It is also the country that Japan accepted most of the foreign workers from last year. With chinese tourism exploding, Chinese workers will be in demand even more.

      Also culturally & religiously chinese are closer. Buddhism is no longer “INDIAN” It’s Chinese.

      Chinese Han makes up 99% or more of all chinese from “CHINA”.

      Sure. China & Japan are having conflicts among their countries but still China & Japan trust & respect each other.

      • tisho

        Why would a Korean or Taiwanese go to Japan to look for work, when both Korea and Taiwan have higher gdp per capita and higher wages than Japan? For China, sure, for now, only some really desperate Chinese would go to Japan. Vietnamese? Sure, why not. Remind yourself that the number of Japanese workers in China is growing every year.

      • Jr. Mackeltom

        64% of all immigrants in Japan as of 2013-2014 were from China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam.

        79% of all immigrants in Japan as of 2014-2015 were from China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam.

        You’re only taking economical or the monetary into your view, which makes it a tunnel view. There’re so many non-monetary benefits that people seek. Chinese people flocks in great numbers in Japan. These people aren’t here for spending there lives here permanently even if they wanted to.

        Japanese give priority to people from East Asia and some countries in South East Asia. Japan have reduced the allowed number of foreigners from South Asia.

        GDP is irrelevant and dosent measure what people want. Compare the GDP with the GNP of these countries and you’ll understand what I mean.

      • tisho

        uhh, that’s not true at all. Japan has around 2 million immigrants, which is something like 1.9% of their entire population. The majority of these people are foreign residence, such as university students. There are a lot of Chinese, something like 500K which is semi-alot, in comparison there are about 150K Japanese in China and rising every year. The Koreans you’re talking about are probably Japanese born but not naturalized, others are probably students. The other foreigners would be Filipinos and some Japanese-Brazilians, around 10% would be Americans or Europeans. Korea in comparison has around 3% of its population immigrants and rising fast. I have no idea why would a Korean, much less a Taiwanese want to immigrate to Japan other than some personal matters. Both Korea and Taiwan have much higher standards of living, i don’t see any Taiwanese registered as foreigners in Japan either, the Koreans in the statistics are either Japan-born non naturalized, or just university students. The rest of your comment about GDP shows you have no clue what GDP is and how economics work.

      • Jr. Mackeltom

        Total number of Chinese in Japan as of 2015 are around 780,000+ (government statistics), Koreans around 700,000 with half of them with special resident status.

        Taiwanese, Vietnamese & Thai people form almost 300,000 and almost all of them are workers that are in Japan for a short time.

        Brazilians showed a decline in 2015, the decline have continued over a decade. Philippines also increased by a small amount.

        I am having the documents from the embassy. For demographical purposes.

      • tisho

        What are these statistics that you watch? Show me a link. Even if we accept this data as valid, which is still pending approval as i have not seen the source, this does not contradict what i said, in fact it confirms it. 700K Koreans, half of which ”special resident status”, meaning, Japan-born person of Korean ancestry being registered as ”Korean immigrant” instead of a natural born Japanese. It’s like you register an American as ”German immigrant” because his ancestors were from Germany. That’s not a Korean immigrant by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a Japanese born person, he was not born in Korea and decided to immigrate to Japan as the statistics would suggest, he is born in Japan, but because of the skewed methodology, he is registered as Korean. The rest of the Koreans ”immigrants” are either university students or workers who were transferred from their companies to their Japanese branch of the company. And Taiwanese, how many Taiwanese exactly? Again, why would a Taiwanese go to Japan to work when the standards of living in Japan are much higher, and the average wage is almost two times higher in Taiwan? Other than a university student which in Japan is counted as an ”immigrant”, i don’t see any other type of Taiwanese who would be living in Japan , certainly not anywhere near 300K, you counted 3 different groups of people. I bet there are more Japanese immigrants in Korea and Taiwan than the other way around.

      • Jr. Mackeltom

        Lol don’t ask me ask the Taiwanese why have there numbers rocketed from 30,000 over 120,000 within the last two years.

        300,000 is for all three countries combied namely; Taiwan, Vietnam, Thai people. Lol “non-monetary term” applys here.

        Ill post the statistics shortly.

      • tisho

        According to that data (assuming you are blimp), there are 45,000 Taiwanese in Japan, not 120K. Among them, about 10,000 are university students, around 11,000 are spouses of Japanese nationals, around 1 thousands are business owners. I couldn’t understand some of these, such as ”work holiday” and ”staying with family”, not sure what that mean. Anyway, the only non-monetary term for a Taiwanese to go to Japan would be university student. Again, why would a Taiwanese want to go to Japan other than some personal matters or university studying. And why would you combine these 3 different groups of people? That’s like combining Americans and Haitians into the same bracket. The only immigrants Japan can attract are some really desperate people from other Asian countries who want to work for a better wage. Gallup int. made a ranking of immigration destinations, it showed that about 5 million people from around the world express desire to move to Japan if they could, which means, even if Japan completely opens up its borders there will be around 5 million people who could move there, 5 million is literally nothing, that would be something like 2% of Japan’s population. In comparison, more than 80% of the people around the world want to move to the US. The debate Japan should be having is how to make people want to come here, not how to limit the very few that want to come. Right now the number one immigration destination in Asia is China, and i imagine this will only increase as they develop further. They already offer various forms of scholarships for Africans, China already has the largest population of Africans in Asia, this will only increase in the coming years. The Japanese delusional mentality that people want to go to their country is beyond ridiculous, and yet very much expected.

      • tisho

        According to that data (assuming you are blimp), there are 45,000 Taiwanese in Japan, not 120K. Among them, about 10,000 are university students, around 11,000 are spouses of Japanese nationals, around 1 thousands are business owners. I couldn’t understand some of these, such as ”work holiday” and ”staying with family”, not sure what that mean. Anyway, the only non-monetary term for a Taiwanese to go to Japan would be university student. Again, why would a Taiwanese want to go to Japan other than some personal matters or university studying. And why would you combine these 3 different groups of people? That’s like combining Americans and Haitians into the same bracket. The only immigrants Japan can attract are some really desperate people from other Asian countries who want to work for a better wage. Gallup int. made a ranking of immigration destinations, it showed that about 5 million people from around the world express desire to move to Japan if they could, which means, even if Japan completely opens up its borders there will be around 5 million people who could move there, 5 million is literally nothing, that would be something like 2% of Japan’s population. In comparison, more than 80% of the people around the world want to move to the US. The debate Japan should be having is how to make people want to come here, not how to limit the very few that want to come. Right now the number one immigration destination in Asia is China, and i imagine this will only increase as they develop further. They already offer various forms of scholarships for Africans, China already has the largest population of Africans in Asia, this will only increase in the coming years. The Japanese delusional mentality that people want to go to their country is beyond ridiculous, and yet very much expected.

      • tisho

        According to that data (assuming you are blimp), there are 45,000 Taiwanese in Japan, not 120K. Among them, about 10,000 are university students, around 11,000 are spouses of Japanese nationals, around 1 thousands are business owners. I couldn’t understand some of these, such as ”work holiday” and ”staying with family”, not sure what that mean. Anyway, the only non-monetary term for a Taiwanese to go to Japan would be university student. Again, why would a Taiwanese want to go to Japan other than some personal matters or university studying. And why would you combine these 3 different groups of people? That’s like combining Americans and Haitians into the same bracket. The only immigrants Japan can attract are some really desperate people from other Asian countries who want to work for a better wage. Gallup int. made a ranking of immigration destinations, it showed that about 5 million people from around the world express desire to move to Japan if they could, which means, even if Japan completely opens up its borders there will be around 5 million people who could move there, 5 million is literally nothing, that would be something like 2% of Japan’s population. In comparison, more than 80% of the people around the world want to move to the US. The debate Japan should be having is how to make people want to come here, not how to limit the very few that want to come. Right now the number one immigration destination in Asia is China, and i imagine this will only increase as they develop further. They already offer various forms of scholarships for Africans, China already has the largest population of Africans in Asia, this will only increase in the coming years. The Japanese delusional mentality that people want to go to their country is beyond ridiculous, and yet very much expected.

  • Kessek

    Sounds like the same tired headline every month with nothing new to say. GG.

  • Kessek

    Sounds like the same tired headline every month with nothing new to say. GG.

  • Marco Olozabal

    Japan’s fertility problem is related to the 70 hour weeks which leave no time nor energy for the humpa humpa with the wife.

    Money is also a problem. 25 years of economic stagnation does not offer many opportunities for the young Japanese to raise a family.

    Pushing more women to the workplace will not solve the TFR problem. Women will work the painful 12 hour working week and be exhausted themselves, becomign slaves of the office. And once they gave kids they get kicked out. This wont work unless you offer some very nice freebies such as company sponsored day care or subsidised day care and social working hours for all workers imposed by law with hefty penalties for bosses for non compliance.

    • Evolutionary1

      I agree that putting more girls into the labor supply will only further hurt fertility rates–as feminism has done in the West.

  • Marco Olozabal

    Japan’s fertility problem is related to the 70 hour weeks which leave no time nor energy for the humpa humpa with the wife.

    Money is also a problem. 25 years of economic stagnation does not offer many opportunities for the young Japanese to raise a family.

    Pushing more women to the workplace will not solve the TFR problem. Women will work the painful 12 hour working week and be exhausted themselves, becomign slaves of the office. And once they gave kids they get kicked out. This wont work unless you offer some very nice freebies such as company sponsored day care or subsidised day care and social working hours for all workers imposed by law with hefty penalties for bosses for non compliance.

  • wellhungprimate

    I don’t get it. So many beautiful Japanese girls. There shoould be babies everywhere

  • surya

    Unlike China and Korea, India has no territorial disputes with Japan. The former two countries make Japan feel guilty of its recent past at every opportunity they get. Indians are very much in demand in the United States, why not Japan follow the example of the US and get the guest workers from India. Just a thought.