Curbing the decline in Japan’s population has come to the fore as an urgent policy agenda item, with the Abe administration poised to set a target of keeping the nation’s population around 100 million five decades from now. Behind the move is a growing sense of crisis in government and business circles that the falling population — especially that of the working-age population — is eroding the sustainability of the nation’s economic growth as well as its social security system.
The administration plans to beef up measures to raise the low fertility rate, including providing more child-rearing support. Businesses also have a key role to play in creating an environment in which couples feel they can have children.
Recent data are alarming. Births in Japan fell to a record low in 2013 and were outnumbered by deaths by the largest margin ever. The population of 127.29 million as of last October represents a decline of about 800,000 from the peak in 2008.
In 2013, the total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime — inched up for the second year in a row to 1.43. But the fall in the number of women of child-bearing age points to a continuing decline in births. The number of newlywed couples was the lowest since the end of World War II.
It is estimated that the population will fall below 100 million by 2048 and decline to 86.74 million by 2060 if the birthrate does not rise. The government’s new target of keeping the population at around 100 million five decades from now will require the total fertility rate — which fell below 2 in 1975 and plunged to a low of 1.26 in 2005 — to rebound to 2.07 by 2030.
Calls to do something about the low fertility rate are nothing new. For the past two decades, the government has been pushing measures to encourage childbirths, such as increasing the number of day-care centers for children, making it easier for mothers to work and trying to get men to spend more time engaging in child-rearing and housework.
However, the impact of such measures has not been clear. The downtrend in the fertility rate continued until 2006, when it began to slowly rebound.
It is doubtful that the upward trend will gain speed since many of the offspring of the postwar baby-boomer generation, who account for a large portion of the population, will become too old to have children in coming years.
New measures in the works for the government’s policy to raise the birthrate reportedly include support for couples having more than two children — from childbirth through the years of child-rearing and education. A government task force on the issue last month recommended that public spending related to childbirth and child-rearing be doubled from the current level to about 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Child-rearing support for working mothers is also intended to increase women’s participation in the workforce as the nation’s working-age population declines.
Setting national targets for future population or fertility rates can be a sensitive issue because it could lead to pressure on women to have more kids despite people’s diverse and changing lifestyles and values. The government can only help to remove obstacles for women who want to give birth.
Many of the obstacles are believed to concern economic conditions for younger people. A growing number of them can only land irregular jobs; they delay getting married and having children because they don’t earn enough money to support a family. Businesses can help tackle these demographic challenges by increasing full-time positions that can provide income security for the younger generations.
They also need to eliminate unfair treatment of female workers who have children. The burden of child-rearing on women can also be eased by reducing the long working hours for men and encouraging them to take paternity leave.
Population flight to major cities exacerbates demographic problems. Last month a think tank study warned that nearly half of Japan’s municipalities will likely see the populations of women in their 20s and 30s decline by more than half by 2040 if the population shift away from rural areas and the low birthrate continue at current levels — a situation that could lead to a breakdown in the operation of many municipalities.
While Tokyo attracts more people from rural areas because of the job opportunities it offers, its fertility rate of 1.13 is the lowest among Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Continued population flight to big cities — where the cost of living is higher, people marry late, and the availability of child-care services for working mothers is limited — could accelerate the population downtrend.
Halting and reversing the population flight to big cities will be crucial in curbing the population downturn. Jobs need to be created in municipalities of rural regions to retain residents and lure people back from urban areas. While sustaining and beefing up local industries such as farming and fisheries in such areas will be essential, businesses can also contribute by shifting some operations to outside major cities.
Clearly the government’s policy actions on the demographic challenges will need to be backed up by cooperation from the business sector if it is to succeed.