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Japan’s cloudy prospects for higher fertility

by Michael Sutton

WASHINGTON — Japan’s efforts to raise fertility through changes to the child allowance present a fragile and troubling vision for the future.

Japan’s demographic malaise is hardly unique. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 it shared a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.2 with South Korea and is marginally higher than Taiwan and Singapore at 1.1.

TFR is an estimate of the number of children a woman is likely to have during her reproductive years. The level of national replenishment, or what demographers call “replacement,” is 2.1.

Unlike in Taiwan and South Korea, very low fertility is old news for Japan. The years between 1959 and 1964, and from 1974 until 2010, saw a TFR of less than 2.1 with the lowest in 2005 at 1.26, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau listed Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Greece at 1.4, and the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Italy and Romania at 1.3.

Lower fertility was inevitable due to economic development, the 1948 Eugenics Protection Act to check overpopulation, Japan’s family planning and shifts in values. TFR fell from 4.4 in 1948 to 2.11 in 1957. The message of the population “echo” erroneously called the “second baby boom” — from the early 1960s to early 1970s — was that the days of large families were over.

By this time, very few people considered children as “insurance providers” following the gains in economic security for the population in general and women’s access to contraception.

The shift to child allowances and pronatal policies challenges the legitimacy of these freedoms by framing the causes of, and solutions to, low fertility in the context of their illusory effects on economic growth.

Two decades of Japanese efforts to raise the birthrate have failed. From 1991 to 2010, the policy has had at least 10 separate transformations and extensions, “visions” and amendments. There have been four five-year plans: 1994-1999 (Angel Plan); 2000-2004 (New Angel Plan), 2005-2009 (Support Plan for Parents and Children) and the current plan (2010-2014).

It was into this last plan that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan injected a campaign proposal to amend the Child Allowance Law once again to increase the allowance to families with children up to age 15 to ¥13,000 per month.

Presented as a radical shift in policy, the DPJ’s scheme is a quantitative rather than qualitative shift in policymaking, although the extension of payments to foreigners and their children is noteworthy. It is the first of several innovations to socialize childbearing and child-raising in Japan as policymakers seek what is viewed as the Swedish or French models.

Japan’s desire to become the Sweden of Asia is problematic. According to the Population Reference Bureau for 2010, New Zealand sits next to Iceland and Ireland with the highest TFR in the developed world at 2.1. The U.S. shares a 2.0 TFR with Norway and France, while the United Kingdom and Australia share 1.9 with Sweden and Finland. This means that the Nordic/French model of high taxation and expansive welfare is not the only path to high fertility.

The DPJ needs to justify the high government costs of the child allowance against the historic reality that virtually all policies to increase fertility directly in East Asia have failed thus far.

As it is far too late for Japan to adopt an open immigration policy in the numbers necessary to restore workforce levels, sound social and economic policies for adaptation — not for higher fertility — must be the first priority.

Michael Sutton, Ph.D., is a Northeast Asian Visiting Fellow at East-West Center in Washington, D.C. (eastasiandemography.gmail.com)