For the past 18 months, media outlets in Japan and abroad have looked approvingly upon Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to improve the country’s economic future through proactive measures dubbed “Abenomics.” The goal is to spur inflation so that companies can make more money and increase pay, thus raising consumption, tax revenues, etc. However, the plan’s long-term success relies on one factor that is not at all assured: a stable population.

Local media have reacted with alarm over the results of a study released May 8 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research that says 49.8 percent of Japan’s municipalities will see their populations of women between the ages of 20 and 39 decline by more than half by 2040. Smaller localities may cease to exist because there will be no economic base with which to maintain welfare services, schools and public transportation.

An article in Tokyo Shimbun analyzing the report pointed out that 80 percent of these at-risk municipalities are in five prefectures — Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata and Shimane — all of which already show lopsided demographics. The portion of elderly is high, and many of the employment opportunities for younger women in these areas are in the medical and nursing fields. As people die and are not replaced, these workers will be compelled to go elsewhere, thus draining the area of women even before they have a chance to get married and settle down. A corollary mission of Abenomics is to get more women into the workforce, and in order to make that happen they will have to go to where the work is — cities.

Last week in an interim report, an advisory panel to the prime minister questioned the wisdom of an economic strategy that doesn’t prioritize population maintenance. Though the nation’s low birthrate has been a well-known issue since the late 80s, there has been no applied effort on the part of authorities to address it. Tokyo Shimbun made this point in the headline of a related article: The government has always seen the birthrate issue as a “secondary” consideration. Though the Democratic Party of Japan didn’t do anything either during its short tenure as the ruling party, it did try to allocate a budget of ¥1 trillion to address the low birthrate in its plan to overhaul the social security system.

Last February, the Abe administration revived this plan, at least in spirit, when it earmarked ¥1.1 trillion to create daycare facilities, since the government has come around to the reality that women who work will not have babies unless such facilities are more available. But in the end the Liberal Democratic Party could not find enough money in the budget. That’s because Abenomics is predicated on public works, for which the government has put aside ¥6 trillion, an increase of 12.9 percent over 2013. The priorities are even clearer when you consider the administration has budgeted ¥4.2 trillion for defense-related outlays, a 2.8 percent increase over last year and the second annual boost in a row.

Keio University professor Yoshio Higuchi told Tokyo Shimbun that the government has never taken depopulation seriously. Officials at both the national and local levels always address more immediate social problems, such as care for the elderly, and push long-term issues, like creating an environment in which younger people might want to have children, to the back burner. Nothing ever gets done and so, according to Higuchi, “average citizens have no particular feeling” about depopulation.

Another reason the government has not taken the matter seriously is that until now it didn’t directly affect the economy. Though the birthrate has been low for decades, there was no concurrent labor shortage. But now there is, and unless more workers are found, the economic system as it stands cannot be sustained.

That might not be a problem if the system were replaced with something more suitable to Japan’s present social situation, but such a possibility also seems to be outside the purview of the authorities. Another government study panel, assembled by the Cabinet Office, discussed the low birthrate issue this past spring, and according to Asahi Shimbun it was hard put to proceed without first setting a numerical goal, a birthrate “target.” Asahi reported that this remark “met with controversy” because the number would place tacit pressure on young people to have kids and thus “infringe on their right not to have children.” The panel responded, “If we don’t set a specific goal, the public won’t think we’re addressing the issue seriously.” One male professor even seemed to advocate adopting the pre-World War II policy of promoting childbirth. “I know we no longer force women to have babies,” he said, “but we have to send a message.”

The fact that officials are talking about people’s “right” to have or not have children shows how out-of-touch the discussion about the birthrate has become. A recent piece in Aera conveyed the frustration of some women. One university instructor told the magazine that the government “doesn’t respect how individual women live.” It only “thinks up ways that we can be of benefit to the country.”

If the LDP insists on addressing these matters as being purely economic in nature, then it should devise solutions that are purely economic in nature as well. Asahi points out that France boosted its population by giving cash to women who have babies, and Sweden mandates shorter work hours and subsidizes maternity and paternity leaves. What the paper doesn’t mention is that in France and Sweden single motherhood and having children out-of-wedlock aren’t stigmatized administratively or financially. Aera quotes a financial planner who calculates that a child costs an average of ¥27 million from cradle to college graduation, so if the government really wants to increase the birthrate there’s only one sure way to do it: Make it OK for unmarried folks to have kids and pay all couples, wed or unwed, to do it.

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