On June 1, shocking figures about the population were announced by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The total number of newborn babies in 2017 was around a mere 946,000 — nearly 40,000 fewer than in the previous year and the lowest since the government started taking relevant statistics in 1899. I was born in 1973 and the total number of newborns that year was around 2.09 million, twice as many as in 2017. On the other hand, the number of deaths increased to 1.34 million last year, which means the nation's population decreased by about 400,000.

The most shocking figure was the total fertility rate of 1.43 — a drop of 0.01 point from 2016 for the second consecutive annual decline. The fertility rate expresses how many babies a woman in a country or area bears on average and a figure below 2.0 means that the population will decline. (Strictly speaking, the number needed to maintain the population is said to be 2.07, if we take into account that some people die before reaching adulthood.) Some scholars insist that Japan's population could, theoretically, decline to just about 1,000 around the year 2500 if the fertility rate does not increase.

Aware of the gravity of the issue, the Abe administration has set a tentative target of increasing the fertility rate to 1.8 by the mid-2020s. The fertility rate has in fact recovered from a low of 1.26 in 2005 to 1.45 in 2015, but has since begun to decline again.