June 5, 2023
TOKYO – As the mother watches her child play in a day care center in Tokyo, she offers a familiar lament when it comes to the prospect of having more children amid Japan’s depopulation crisis.
“We have a hard time making ends meet due to the rising prices of vegetables and other things,” the housewife in her 40s said as she keeps her eyes on her 3-year-old son. “Thinking about the cost of education, raising one child is all we can handle.”
On Friday, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry released the bleak news that the nation’s total fertility rate sank to an all-time low last year, citing its latest vital statistics.
Part of that was attributed to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the number of marriages, which has a strong connection to childbirth statistics, and the government expects the fertility rate to rebound somewhat from 2024 onward.
But it does not resolve the underlying problem — that of a younger generation becoming more reluctant to even consider having children, deterred by the burden of child-rearing. Some are calling for support measures that would stabilize employment of young adults and increase wages.
The drop of the birthrate in 2022 to a record low stemmed from a combination of the increased burden felt by households raising children amid a sluggish economy, and the sharp drop in marriages due to the pandemic.
Behavioral restrictions during the pandemic, such as self-restraint on going out, led to less opportunities for people to meet others. In addition, as the employment environment worsened as companies stopped hiring, uncertainty over the future led many to put off getting married.
Consequently, the number of marriages dropped from about 600,000 in 2019 to around 500,000 annually between 2020 and 2022.
The government expects the birthrate to recover as the effects of the pandemic fade.
According to the median population projection released in April by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the birthrate is expected to bottom out at 1.23 in 2023. It will begin to pick up in 2024, based on a slight increase in the number of marriages in 2022 from the previous year.
Still, the sluggish economy and a growing sense of financial burden on the working-age population due to increased social insurance premiums and other expenses have led to a reduced desire to have children.
According to the national population institute’s National Fertility Survey conducted in 2021, only 36.6% of unmarried women aged 18 to 34 and 55.0% of unmarried men in the same age group agreed with statement that “if you get married, you should have children.” This was a sharp decline from the previous survey conducted in 2015.
“The desire among the younger generation to have children has declined far more than expected,” said Takumi Fujinami, a senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute. “For economic reasons, more people are thinking that even if they get married, they do not need children or want fewer children. The mistaken impression is that if we can get more people to get married, the birthrate will also increase.”
Low birthrate spiral
If the low birthrate becomes the established norm, it will become impossible to sustain the social infrastructure necessary for raising children, such as maternity hospitals and kindergartens.
Becoming a society in which few children is a matter of course will affect people’s consciousness and reduce the desire to have children, thereby accelerating the decline in births and plunging society down a “low birthrate spiral.”
According to the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the number of hospitals and clinics that handled childbirths totaled 985 in 2021, a drop of about 20% from 2007.
To escape from the low birthrate spiral, changing the consciousness of the younger generation is vital. Ensuing a stable living environment will help achieve that, said one expert.
“It is necessary to ease future concerns of the younger generation by raising wages and stabilizing employment,” said Takuya Hoshino, a chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.