Commentary / Japan

Reversing Japan’s demographic nosedive

by Ichiro Asahina

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.

According to an estimate by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, around the year 2050, Japan’s total population will be under 100 million (almost 30 million fewer than its peak in 2008). More critically, the working-age (15-64) population will fall below 50 million around that time, which is 35 to 40 million fewer than in the peak year of 1995.

Because the shape of the population graph (the so-called population pyramid) in 2050 is projected to be quite similar to that of a casket, some scholars might refer to Japan’s population situation as a “coffin type,” which implies a bleak future for this country.

To cope with this serious reality, Japan must devise a more radical plan and implement it as soon as possible. In this context, “radical” means “comprehensive.” Japan should do anything it can to increase the fertility rate. Among the many steps that should be taken, I would like to propose three basic measures.

First, we must prepare as many opportunities as possible for men and women who wish to marry to meet, especially younger people. For example, the government should support marriage agencies and marriage consultants as well as urge local authorities to host matching parties.

Even today, couples still tend not to have kids unless they are married as having a baby remains closely related to marriage in this country. If an unmarried woman in a relationship becomes pregnant, usually the couple is inclined to have a wedding ceremony before the baby is born — a situation often called “deki-kon” in Japanese.

Based on the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research’s data, the total number of love marriages (about 630,000 cases a year from 2006-2010) has not changed a lot comparing with that of 1970-1974 (around 650,000 cases a year), while the number of arranged marriages has sharply dropped over the same period (roughly 350,000 a year in the 1970-1974 period to a mere 40,000 in 2006-2010). In my opinion, 1970-1974 was the critical moment for Japan’s fertility rate since at that time the rate was around 2.1 — the so-called “population maintenance level” — but it began to decline sharply afterward.

In the Japan of the past, people traditionally made marriage decisions based on the wishes of their parents and relatives who know them very well. The nuclear family phenomenon after World War II gradually destroyed this marriage convention. Although a certain portion of people are positive enough to have love marriages, many Japanese people are too shy to engage in dating and to propose marriage on their own. There is still a need for marriage consultants and others to encourage people to marry.

Second, we should also face the fact that in modern society, marriage is not necessary for having kids. We should establish a new system for couples or women who do not want to marry but want to have children.

In France, the total fertility rate once sharply declined to 1.66 but then recovered to over 2.0 (although it fell to 1.88 in 2017). This is reportedly partly the result of the PACS (“Pacte civil de solidarite” in French) civil union system established in 1999, which gives unmarried couples certain rights and responsibilities similar to those given to married couples.

Finally, it is important to develop some traditional incentives for couples or women to have at least one or more children. The most typical one is a lump-sum birth allowance. In Japan, normally the total amount is around ¥420,000 per baby although some local governments provide additional financial support. In any case, it’s not enough to cover the expense of raising children.

The Abe administration has announced that the government plans to cover the costs of early childhood education and child care, but that will not be enough to encourage couples to have more babies. At least ¥1 million should be given per birth. According to a study by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the average desired number of children of married and child-rearing couples is more than two. All we need is, then, just giving them a supportive push forward.

In addition to these three basic measures, we should also think about accepting immigrants — a topic that is now under serious discussion from the perspectives of needing to cope with the nation’s labor shortage and the social and security implications of admitting immigrants.

Furthermore, Japan should expand its system of child adoption as the number of abortions cannot be overlooked. It is true that the total number of abortions has drastically dropped from more than 1 million cases in the 1950s, but the annual figure is still around 150,000 to 200,000.

Ichiro Asahina is the chief executive officer of the Tokyo-based think tank Aoyama Shachu Corp.