Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is counting on his new minister for stemming Japan’s population decline to inspire imitators. He’s a father of four.

Katsunobu Kato, a 59-year-old former Finance Ministry official, was appointed Wednesday to a new Cabinet post responsible for turning around Japan’s demographic descent.

His task: reverse the nation’s sliding birthrate and stem the flow of people leaving the labor force to care for elderly relatives. Japan has the highest percentage of people aged 65 or over of all the Group of Seven nations.

Abe has set some lofty targets. The prime minister last month introduced a goal of boosting the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime to 1.8 from about 1.4 now. This is part of Abe’s plan to stabilize the population at 100 million in half a century, from the current 127 million.

“The tide is against him,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. “Marriage rates have gone down, the fertility rate is below replacement level. I don’t think there are many pro-fertility policies the government can introduce that will reverse the trend, because of the high cost of raising a kid and the opportunity cost in terms of careers.”

Abe spoke of an impending labor crisis in the world’s third-largest economy when he laid out a new program dubbed “Abenomics 2.0” on Sept. 24. He is aiming for 20 percent growth in gross domestic product, and pledged to boost support for families with children, and improve the nation’s social security system.

Failure to buck current trends could see Japan’s working population collapsing by more than 40 percent to 38 million by 2060.

“The problem of the low birthrate and the aging population cannot be neglected,” Abe told reporters after Wednesday’s Cabinet changes. “We will compile the first package of measures by the end of the year and put it into practice immediately,” he added.

Abe said he picked Kato for the strong leadership skills he showed in overseeing senior appointments to the bureaucracy in his previous job as Cabinet personnel bureau chief. After Kato took up that post, the number of women recruited to the career track of the bureaucracy leaped to more than 30 percent for the first time. Kato, whose children are all girls, will be responsible for the portfolios of gender equality and women’s empowerment as well as the population problem.

Acknowledging that many Japanese feel unable to marry or have children for financial reasons, Abe has also vowed to support those seeking fertility treatment, cut waiting lists for child care to zero, expand the provision of free preschool education and provide support for “three-generation” households, where grandparents can act as babysitters. Such measures have met with little success in Singapore, which faces its own demographic woes.

Japanese who care for elderly relatives are less likely than others to be in paid work, according to a government report in 2012. Abe said last month that a plan must be in place by 2020 to deal with the aging of its postwar baby boom generation.

One policy for bolstering the population recommended by many economists is unlikely to be on Kato’s agenda for the time being: immigration. Abe said last week that efforts to boost the fertility rate and keep women and the elderly in the labor force, should come before considering opening Japan’s doors to more foreigners.

While local governments are providing tens of thousands of new day care spots each year, they are failing to keep pace with demand, as more women stay in paid work after having children. The number of kids on waiting lists rose to more than 23,000 in April, the first rise in five years, due to a relaxation of application rules.

“Just increasing the number of day care centers wouldn’t make people have more kids,” said 31-year-old Tomomi Akihama, who spends an hour delivering her two children to separate day care centers by bicycle in the morning before work. “What we need is an environment that makes it easier.”

That would include providing opportunities to return to work after a career break raising children, the Tokyo resident said. But there’s also a more practical barrier to having more than two kids.

“You couldn’t move them around,” she said. “They wouldn’t fit on the bicycle.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.