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

by Olga Garnova

“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.

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