No quick fix to reverse decline in newborns

The latest Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry data underlines the accelerating decline of Japan’s population with an ever-falling number of births. The total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman gives birth in her lifetime — has declined for three years in a row to 1.42 in 2018. The number of babies born last year fell to 918,397, a record low since government statistics started being kept and down by 27,668 from the previous year. The natural decline of the population — the number of newborns minus deaths— reached 444,085, another record high and the 12th consecutive annual decline, with the population decrease expanding each year.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to tackle the demographic woes as a priority issue, but its target of raising the fertility rate back to 1.8 by fiscal 2025 seems increasingly out of reach. What’s more, even some recovery in the fertility rate is not expected to result in raising the number of newborns in the foreseeable future, since the number of women in the primary childbirth age bracket has already declined significantly. Last year, the population of women aged 25 to 39 dipped below 10 million for the first time. The number of newborns declined among mothers of all age brackets except for those 45 or older.

Among the 47 prefectures, the fertility rate was the lowest in Tokyo at 1.20, compared with the highest, 1.89, in Okinawa — the only prefecture where the number of newborns topped the number of deaths. The unabated population flight from rural areas to Tokyo — where the high cost of living is believed to depress the fertility rate — and its environs threatens to exacerbate the nation’s demographic problems.

While the elderly population is growing and accounts for an expanding share of the total, the number of children under 15 in Japan has been on a long-term decline since its peak in the 1950s, falling to a new low of 15.33 million as of last April — lower by 180,000 from a year earlier and accounting for a mere 12.1 percent of the total population. The nation’s child population is now down to nearly half the peak of 29.89 million in 1954, and its share of the national total is the lowest among the 32 countries with a population of 40 million or more surveyed by the United Nations. The fall in the number of newborns began to pick up speed in the late 1990s. Even as the fertility rate picked up slightly after bottoming out at 1.26 in 2005, the annual number of births continued its downward trend, falling short of 1 million for three years in a row since 2016.

There will be no panacea to reverse the decline in the number of newborns. Constant efforts must be maintained to create an environment in which people can marry and start families earlier in their lives. The number of couples who married in 2018 declined to a postwar low of 586,438 — a significant fall from the peak of nearly 1.1 million in 1972. The average age for people marrying for the first time was 31.1 among men and 29.4 among women — unchanged since 2014, while women gave birth to their first child at an average age of 30.7.

Large numbers of couples reportedly hesitate to have a second or third child due to economic reasons such as the high cost of education. Providing support for young couples to raise children while working is a pressing challenge.

Along with boosting the capacity of day care centers for children, the Abe administration has pushed to make preschool education and nursery care for children free, with the policy set to start in October based on legislation enacted earlier this year. However, the benefits of free preschool education and day-care services is deemed to be limited given that as of last October more than 40,000 children were on waiting lists to be admitted to such facilities as efforts to increase their capacity and availability have yet to catch up with demand.

While the immediate effects in changing the demographic trends may be unclear, wide-ranging policy measures should be steadily implemented to stabilize the employment of the child-rearing generations so they can marry and raise families without overly burdensome economic concerns. Work-style reforms will also be needed to make it easier for both parents to raise their children while holding down jobs, such as curbing their working hours and making sure that they do not face disadvantages in their careers by rearing children. The key is not to put pressure on people to have more children, but to provide support for those who wish to have them.