Editorials

Address Japan's demographic challenges

During the last Upper House election three years ago, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set a target of restoring the nation’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime — to 1.8 by 2025, and the campaign platform for his Liberal Democratic Party said this target would be achieved by introducing a system that makes it easier for people to maintain their career while raising children. When he dissolved the Lower House for a snap general election in 2017, the prime minister termed the rapidly aging population with ever-falling number of children a “national crisis” and pledged greater support for people raising children, including free preschool education and nursery care for children.

In the campaign for the Upper House election this Sunday, any reference to the fertility rate is absent from the LDP’s platform. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the fertility rate, which had been in a gradual upward trend since hitting a low of 1.26 in 2005, inched down for the third straight year to 1.42 in 2018. The number of babies born last year hit a record low of some 918,000, and the natural decline of the population, or the number of newborns minus deaths, reached a record high of 444,000.

Of course, government policy is not expected to radically improve the national demographic trend in just a few years. Still, these figures are not promising, and it seems the trend of an aging and declining population will only accelerate in the coming years, with an increasingly serious impact on the nation’s future. But during this election season, the political parties do not appear to be engaging in active discussions on ways to address the demographic woes.

Since the problem will heavily affect the nation’s potential for economic growth, the future of the public pension system and even survival of municipalities and communities in many parts of Japan, all the parties involved should deal steadily with the demographic crisis not as a near-term campaign issue but as a long-term policy challenge. In addition to the efforts to reverse the demographic trend, measures to help the nation better adapt to its aging and falling population, such as restructuring administrative services, will be needed.

Whether to have children rests with each individual’s choice and lifestyle. The least that can be done in policy terms is to remove barriers that discourage people who would like to have and raise children. The situation in which many youths give up on marrying and having a family due to economic reasons needs to be addressed, for example, by improving job security for the younger generation. Labor practices in which giving birth and raising children hampers a woman’s career must be fixed, while measures need to be taken to reduce the financial burden for parents raising and educating children.

As promised by Abe two years ago, preschool education and nursery services will, from October, become free for children between the ages of 3 and 5 and for those up to the age of 2 from low-income families, with the expense covered by additional revenue from the planned consumption tax hike to 10 percent. However, concern lingers that the program may exacerbate the supply shortage of day care services, which currently leaves large numbers of children of working mothers on waiting lists.

The accelerating decline of the population — and its changing composition — was confirmed in demographic data released by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry earlier this month. While the population of people 65 or older accounted for 28.6 percent of the total at the beginning of this year, the proportion of the productive-age population from age 15 to 64 inched down to 59.49 percent. The number of people in this age bracket fell by more than 600,000 from a year ago, a pace faster than the decline of the total Japanese population.

The data also show that the number of foreign residents rose by nearly 170,000 to a record 2.67 million. The non-Japanese population increased in all 47 prefectures — a marked contrast to the decline of the Japanese population in 42 prefectures, with only those in the greater Tokyo area and Okinawa gaining in the number of Japanese. The continuing increase in their number is attributed to the manufacturing and service sectors hiring more foreign workers to make up for the tightening domestic manpower supply. In April, the amended immigration control law to accept more workers from abroad took effect, with the government expecting some 345,000 workers from overseas taking up manual labor positions in manpower-scarce sectors in the next five years.

But even as doors are opened wider for foreign workers, many of them still face various hurdles to living comfortably in this country, such as securing housing and medical and administrative services in multiple languages. The government, lawmakers and political parties need to keep exploring what can be done to support foreign residents so Japan will be the country of choice for incoming workers.