Japan’s low birthrate has accelerated the graying population.
According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, the past 29 years have seen a continuous decline in the number of people under age 15. There were just 17 million of them as of April, down 190,000 from a year ago.
The nation’s total fertility rate — the number of children a woman would bear throughout her life if she follows the age-specific fertility rates of a given year — was only 1.37 in 2008, although it has been slightly increasing since 2005, when it hit a record low 1.26.
Other parts of Asia share the same dilemma, including South Korea, whose total fertility rate stood at 1.26, Singapore at 1.3 and Hong Kong at 1.1. in 2007, according to the World Health Organization.
A shrinking population poses serious socioeconomic problems, including the difficulty of maintaining welfare, providing social security benefits and ensuring economic growth.
Both the government and private sector have begun efforts to rectify the situation, including providing child-rearing allowances and building more nurseries. But the prospects for the future remain increasingly dim.
“The fertility rate has been declining since the 1980s (except for the past few years) while single people have been on an increase,” said Masahiro Yamada, a Chuo University professor specializing on family studies, adding that a large number of singles are not even in a relationship.
Yamada said up to 80 percent of singles over age 30 don’t have a partner. “How are they going to have a child in such a situation?” he asked.
The clock is ticking and experts are urging the government to act. They believe the key to turning the population decline around is to encourage women who were born during the 1971-1974 baby boom to have children. The pressing issue is that they will soon turn 40 and it will be difficult to reverse the population downtrend after this generation.
But many young singles feel no pressure to marry, like Yoko, a 29-year-old civil servant in Fukuoka who declined to give her last name.
“A lot of people around me got married over 35. Marrying young does not necessarily mean they are happier,” she said, noting she has been focusing more on her career. To her, marriage means no time for herself and she still wants to pursue her career and hobbies.
“I know about the risks of giving birth later in life. So hopefully I can give birth before 35. To do that, I probably have to marry a few years before that.”
Another reason young people are not enthusiastic about looking for a partner, Yamada said, is because many enjoy the “parasite singles” lifestyle, that is, living with and being financially dependent on their parents.
There is also the widespread assumption that once a marriage begins, the husband will be responsible for providing the financial support, he said.
Data back this up. In a Cabinet Office survey in 2007, 44.8 percent of 3,118 respondents said the husband must work and his spouse must be a housewife.
“Women stay with their parents until a financially stable man comes along. Male temp workers or those on low incomes tend to give up the notion of getting married,” he said.
It isn’t that single women want to be housewives, Yamada said. But they hope to marry someone with a high income so they can choose whatever job they like.
“But expecting to marry a man with high income is like a gambling,” he said.
The tendency to marry later in life also contributes to the low birthrate. A survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research indicated couples who wed later in life hesitate to have more than one child because it is physically challenging.
Tomoko Tejima, who is 41 and expecting her first baby this month, is one of those who believe it would be difficult to have more than one child.
A Chiba resident who works for a Tokyo publisher, Tejima married when she was 34. At that time, she thought she would soon get pregnant.
“I am completely healthy. I never thought I would not become pregnant until I’ve turned 40,” she said.
People around her had said she can have a child even after 40 thanks to modern medical technology. But she regrets not trying to have a child at a younger age.
“I’m lucky that I got pregnant. But since pregnancy becomes more risky as we get older, I should have thought about having a child much earlier,” she said. “I want to tell my female colleagues that if you want a child, start thinking about it early.”
Even though young couples still manage to marry, the costs of child-rearing, especially for education, place a heavy burden on them.
For example, if a child received public education from age 3 through 18, the total cost would be about ¥5.51 million, according to a 2008 survey by the education ministry. If a child goes to private schools for the entire period through high school, the cost would jump to ¥16.63 million, it said. To ease this burden, the government this fiscal year introduced a tuition wavier program for public high schools and began providing financial supporrt for those who go to private schools.
The total cost of university tuition and student living expenses could also cost between ¥1 million and ¥2.5 million a year, according to a 2006 survey by the Japan Student Services Organization.
Aiming to support families financially, the Democratic Party of Japan-led government on Tuesday began giving ¥13,000 per child per month to parents until the child finishes junior high school.
“(The government’s support) may not directly boost the birthrate, but it gives a sense of security to families,” said Toru Suzuki, senior researcher at the population institute, adding that France has more straightforward assistance, which is paid only when a family has a second child.
In France the monthly equivalent of ¥14,000 is given to the second child, while in Germany a family receives ¥18,500 to ¥22,000 per child per month.
Professor Yamada said providing allowances will help couples with small children because their income is declining. In 1994, the average income of a household with children under 6 was ¥6 million, but it dropped to ¥5.5 million in 2004, he said, noting more recent figures may be much lower because of the global financial crisis.
But the government programs will only go so far, because they are targeted only at married couples with kids, Yamada said. Singles need to be prodded into the “kon-katsu” (marriage-hunting) quest.
Encouraging more singles to search for a partner would be a big step toward reversing the declining birthrate.