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.