The Heisei Era, which will close in less than two weeks, witnessed an acceleration of the nation’s demographic woes — the falling number of births and the rapidly aging and shrinking population. The demographic problem — which the government has come to describe as a national crisis — clouds Japan’s future economic growth potential and casts doubt on the sustainability of the social security system. Efforts made over the years to reverse the trend appear to have achieved little. The challenge of coping with the aging and declining population will continue to be a priority in the Reiwa Era.

The year that the Heisei Era began, 1989, saw the birth of 1.24 million babies. That number dropped to an estimated 920,000 last year — a nearly 30 percent decline over 30 years. The number of newborns on record was the highest in 1949 at 2.69 million. During the early 1970s, when the children of the first postwar baby boomer generation were born, there were still more than 2 million babies born every year — before a long-term downtrend began. In 1975, the total fertility rate, indicating the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime, dipped below 2.0 — the level above which is deemed needed to maintain the population — and kept falling. The fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.26 in 2005 before gradually inching up in subsequent years to reach 1.43 in 2017. Since the number of women in the primary child-bearing age has already declined significantly, however, any modest recovery in the fertility rate is not expected to result in a substantial pickup in the number of newborns in the coming years.

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