Battling the low birthrate

The updated outline of government measures to fight Japan’s low birthrate sets the right policy direction by calling for public support aimed at encouraging young people to marry among the steps to address the nation’s demographic woes. But policymakers need to be aware that such efforts are not going to immediately halt the population’s downtrend. What’s needed will be steady long-term efforts to implement necessary steps.

While previous government efforts on the birthrate issue tended to focus on support for child-rearing by married couples, the outline called for encouraging marriage and childbirth at a young age among the priority tasks to be tackled in the coming five years.

Japan’s total fertility rate — the average number of children that a women is estimated to give birth to in her lifetime — stood at 1.43 in 2013, having inched up from a record-low 1.26 in 2005, but it’s still far below the 2.07 needed to maintain the population. Japan hasn’t reached that level since 1973, and the long-term drop in the birthrate has contributed to the rapid aging of its society.

Among the steps to encourage young people to marry and start families, the outline calls for efforts to increase their job security. It has long been warned that growing ranks of Japanese youths hesitate to marry due to employment instability and poor incomes. The outline calls for more public support for young people looking for jobs and their transition from irregular work to regular full-time positions.

The government will extend support for matchmaking efforts by municipalities and local chambers of commerce. As measures to encourage childbirths, the outline set numerical targets for increasing the ratio of men taking paternity leave — from 2 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in 2020 — and women retaining their jobs after the birth of their first child, from 38 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2020.

Japan’s birthrate has sharply declined mainly as more people marry late or not at all. Despite the steep fall in the total fertility rate since the 1970s, the average number of children born to a married couple has remained fairly steady — at slightly above two. The ratio of unmarried people has sharply increased for both men and women in their late 20s to early 30s. While more than 1 million couples got married annually in the 1970s, the number hit a postwar low of 660,000 in 2013.

When or whether to marry, and whether to have children and how many, are issues related to people’s lifestyles and personal views. But the government can introduce policies to remove hurdles that potentially discourage people — especially youths — from marrying and raising families.

The government’s policy outline also highlights steps to resolve the chronic problem of long working hours — another factor deemed to discourage couples from having children. It sets a target of increasing the average hours men with young children spend on child-rearing and housework to 2 1/2 hours each day — from 67 minutes in 2011. The long hours at work and prospective lack of support from their husbands may lead working women to not have children— or not even marry.

The outline appears to correctly identify the problems that potentially dissuade young people from marrying and raising families. Now it needs to be fleshed out with specific measures to achieve its ambitious targets. And those efforts need to be sustained over the long term, since it takes time — perhaps decades — to change a demographic trend.

A long-term vision on Japan’s population trend, compiled by the government last year, estimates that a recovery in the total fertility rate to around 1.8 in 2030 and 2.07 in 2040 would enable the country to keep its population at 100 million in 2060 and stabilize it around 90 million in 2090. This means that it would take more than 70 years before the population decline is halted even if the birthrate recovers. The efforts highlighted in the outline must be sustained over the long-term as a key government policy.