Since reaching a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.57 in 1989, Japan has been deeply concerned about demographic trends and future prospects. Below replacement fertility — measured as less than 2.1 children per woman — has been a feature of Japanese demography since 1974.

Many well-intentioned policies have failed to alter consistently low fertility for almost four decades with the TFR currently around 1.4. The Democratic Party of Japan’s child allowance reforms were a casualty of the March 11 disasters. The increased payments were crucial promises made during the 2009 national elections. Low economic growth, the financial and psychological costs of reconstruction, anxiety about the future and the paucity of new policy measures offer little hope for Japan’s demographic future.

It is time for Japan to rethink policy responses to low fertility. It is widely believed that there is an association between low economic growth and anxiety over the low birthrate. But it should be remembered that fertility fell in Japan even during the 1980s, a time usually recognized as prosperous.

Many believe that if Japan’s economic growth rate increases, higher incomes would mitigate demographic anxieties, increase employment opportunities and relieve pressure on population policies. This could not be further from the truth because public policies in democratic societies are not only concerned with addressing needs, but satisfying interests.

The challenge for the government is to pursue the national interest and resist exploiting demographic fears and anxieties. The national interest may be unpopular yet sound, while populism is often useless but wins elections.

Japan can also learn from the experience of other developed countries in the region. Australia for example, has been deeply concerned with the level of national fertility since the early 2000s despite economic growth and prosperity driven by China’s appetite for Australian natural resources. Australia is unique in that deep-seated anxiety over demographic trends prevailed during the height of an economic boom.

This abnormal response to prosperity is more surprising since Australia has never experienced Japan-style low fertility. Australia dropped below replacement level in 1976 then to a TFR of 1.75 in 2003 before returning to 1.9 in 2009.

Demographic reality did little to stop the political invention of demographic crisis rooted in populist politics. The Liberal-National government (1996-2007) introduced in 2004 a “baby bonus” irrespective of income with the slogan “One for Dad, One for Mum, One for the Country”. This one-off payment of A$3,000 to families with new children continued after 2007 under the current Labor government with income restrictions.

In 2011, the Labor-led government implemented a government-funded paid parental leave scheme of 18 weeks for parents earning less than A$150,000 but are forced to choose either this scheme or the baby bonus. The Australian government also announced a “daddy bonus” of A$1, 180 as part of the government-funded paid parental leave policy to begin in 2013.

Given Australian prosperity and absence of very low fertility, these pronatal policies require some explanation. Australia’s demographic anxiety is based on the fear of being overwhelmed by largely Asian neighbors. Traditional xenophobia in Australia was driven by the desire to preserve British and European cultures and values, restrict the intake of foreigners from non-European backgrounds and to marginalize existing minorities irrespective of their Australian histories. The 1980s brought a new climate of multiculturalism and a largely successful war on xenophobia.

Outbursts of racism have nonetheless continued such as the 2005 Cronulla riots and the harassment of Indian students in Melbourne in 2009. Both major political parties have in the last decade consistently exploited popular fears over illegal migrants and refugees for electoral purposes.

Australia’s new fear of the region is not the inflow of unwanted people but the realization of impending national marginalization in a region of super-economies. The specter of irrelevance drives the desire to build what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009 called Big Australia, a more influential nation of at least 35 million by 2050.

With the growth of China, India and the rest of Asia, Australia’s economic position and international relevance have begun to and will continue to wane in relative terms. Australia’s population of any size (currently 22.7 million) will be tiny compared to present and future populations in China, India and Indonesia. Rather than adapt, Australia is unable to accept the social and economic effects of demographic change in the region. “Big Australia” in whatever form will be “Little Australia” next to the emerging Asian giants.

While Australia’s demographic populism is not a model to emulate, Japan is not immune to realities such as relative national decline and anxiety over the future. High economic growth does little to sway political interest in populist policies.

The exploiting of fears and anxieties over future national prospects is tempting for weak governments especially during a time of crisis. Slogans and payments may win votes, but there are deeper obligations to the nation and future generations.

Populist policies are concerned with image and elections. The birth of a child, however, cannot be quantified in monetary terms. Policies to “reward” couples for childbirth turn children into commodities since their entrance into the world is accompanied by a monetary value.

Since families outlive governments and lawmakers, one starting point for Japan is to understand the impacts of contemporary events on the quality of life of the whole population and then to devise policies that do more than win votes or devalue human dignity.

Michael Sutton is a research fellow at the WTO Research Center at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo.

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