If the number of newborns each year is an indicator of the hope that young adults have in the nation’s future — so that they feel secure enough to have a family — Japan’s prospects are fairly grim. The estimated number of babies born in this country in 2019 fell more than 50,000 from the previous year to 864,000, the lowest in the past 120 years. That is roughly 40 percent of the figure in the mid-1970s, when the nation’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime — was last at the level required to sustain the population.
As the elderly account for a larger proportion of the population, the number of deaths last year is estimated to have reached a postwar high of 1.37 million. The natural decline of the population — the number of deaths minus that of births — hit another high of 512,000. Japan lost a population equivalent to that of Tottori Prefecture (550,000) in a single year. The bad news is that the aging and shrinking of the nation’s population is forecast to accelerate in the decades to come.
The problem of rapid aging and decline of Japan’s population with a falling number of births is nothing new. Since the 1990s, the government has taken steps to support young couples in child rearing, such as increasing the capacity of day care services. In October, it began offering free day care services and preschool education for children 3 to 5 years old. However, these efforts have failed to produce tangible effects in reversing the long-term trend of declining births. Instead, the data show that our population is aging and shrinking more rapidly than previously forecast.
The government’s efforts remain insufficient. Japan spends 1.3 percent of its GDP on family-related public expenses such as nursery services and child allowances — roughly one-third of the level in European states that maintain higher fertility rates. But the experience of the past decades also indicates that government policies alone cannot reverse the trend.
Along with scrutinizing the shortcomings of government policies, more broad-based efforts are needed to address the demographic woes, ranging from reviewing the social mechanism in which the burden of child-raising and household chores tends to focus on women, to fixing the prevalent labor practices at Japanese companies, such as the chronically long working hours that prevent both fathers and mothers from spending time with their families.
While the choice of having children is up to each individual, we need to at least secure a social and economic environment where young people are not deterred by financial insecurity from having children — as is believed to have been the case with many of the “employment ice age” generation who graduated from school after the early 1990s collapse of the bubble boom.
The falling population of children — which will translate into a shrinking pool of workers in the coming decades — endangers the future growth of the nation’s economy by eroding its capacity to generate wealth and capping the base for consumer spending. The decline in the working age population (which fell from 87.16 million in 1995 to 75.45 million in 2018 and is forecast to decline to 68.75 million in 2030 and 59.78 million in 2040) shakes the foundation of the social security programs, in which premiums paid by the working generations cover the benefits for the growing elderly ranks.
The aging and shrinking population makes it harder to keep up the various systems that have so far sustained this country. A complicating factor is the population flight to Tokyo, which has the lowest fertility rate among the nation’s 47 prefectures. Despite the government’s pledge to reverse the trend under the “regional revitalization” slogan, the net population inflow into the greater Tokyo area remains unabated. The very survival of many municipalities will be in doubt in the not-so-distant future. In these areas, maintaining administrative services for residents under the current framework of local government is going to become difficult, while many small municipalities in rural depopulated regions are finding it increasingly hard to maintain their assemblies — the very foundation of local autonomy.
The nation’s current demographic woes are the outcome of a long-term trend since the 1970s, and the further aging and shrinking of the population is deemed unavoidable — since the number of women in primary child-bearing age has already declined significantly. There were 13 million women aged 25 to 39 in 2000; today, they number 9.7 million. The total fertility rate remains near its historic low, and a modest recovery in the rate is not expected to reverse the decline in the number of newborns and the falling population in coming decades.
There are no quick remedies for the rapid aging and shrinking of Japan’s population, but inaction will only make matters worse. We need to explore and identify effective measures, and steadily implement them. Equally important will be to adjust the nation’s various systems and policies to the demographic reality before it’s too late. With the aging of the population, annual social security expenses such as pension, medical services and nursing care for the elderly are forecast to hit ¥140 trillion in 2025, and balloon to ¥190 trillion in 2040 — when the aging of the population is forecast to near its peak. Introducing necessary reforms and adjustments to these systems will contribute to easing the younger generation’s sense of insecurity for the nation’s future.
The Japan Times Editorial Board