According to a new report from the Japanese government, Japanese women had 921,000 babies in 2018. That’s the fewest births since comparable records began in 1899 — when the country’s population was a third its current size.
Meanwhile, deaths in Japan hit their highest level in nearly a century. Put together, that means the country’s population is shrinking rapidly, experiencing its largest natural decline on record.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s hard for an economy to grow with fewer workers. And as more people age out of the workforce, a swelling number of retirees must depend on a shrinking number of working people to power the economy. The tax base required to fund public services for those retirees — including health care and elder care — also shrinks.
The reasons for Japan’s baby bust are multifold. Some are specific to Japanese culture. Others bode ill for countries such as ours.
One factor is that Japan has actually been aging for a long time, and the share of childbearing-age women in the population has been shrinking. But even within that group of childbearing-age women, fertility rates are still low.
A second issue is that Japanese marriage rates — like American ones — have fallen. Unlike in the United States, however, Japanese women seldom have babies outside of wedlock. In the United States, 40 percent of all births are to unmarried women, close to the average across developed nations; the share in Japan is about 2 percent.
There, as here, lots of factors have been blamed for plunging marriage rates, including that more young people (especially men) are stuck in temporary, part-time or otherwise “irregular” jobs, and potential partners want greater economic security before committing.
There’s also the persistent challenge of balancing work and family life for those who do manage to land a secure job. Full-time Japanese workers can log very long hours, among the longest in the world, which makes child-rearing especially difficult.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proclaimed the low birthrate a national crisis and has been working (with mixed success) to address some of these issues. He’s pledged, for example, to increase the availability of child care, a strategy designed to both encourage families to expand and keep more mothers working.
Local governments have pitched in, too, sometimes offering creative solutions. One city I visited on a reporting trip in 2017, Toyama, had just set up a special-purpose day care that picks up sick children from regular day-care facilities, transports them to a doctor, and then watches them for the rest of the day so both parents can remain at work.
Even with such expansions, an enormous shortage of child-care services remains, with about 20,000 children wait-listed at nursery schools as of April. In this environment, it can seem risky to have kids if you want to work.
Especially if you’re a working woman, since Japanese women are still expected to take on nearly all parenting (and other household) responsibilities.
Despite government campaigns and policy changes, gender roles remain relatively traditional in Japan. Fathers are entitled to a full year of paid parental leave, for example, but only about 5 percent take it. When they do, they typically claim fewer than five days.
And the problem persists well after that first year of a child’s life. Japanese fathers whose wives work outside the home spend about as much time on housework and child care as do fathers whose wives don’t work outside the home.
That’s generally not because two-earner couples are outsourcing all their household tasks. Finding workers willing to do low-wage housework is challenging in Japan, given widespread labor shortages and restrictive immigration policies. But again, bit by bit, the government has been trying to change that. In fact, this month the Japanese parliament passed controversial legislation allowing more immigration, in part to address precisely this issue.
In a sense, then, Japan has learned the opposite lesson of the United States: If you want more babies, find ways to make it easier for working people to have kids — through both more family-friendly workplace policies and a more liberal immigration system. (Immigrants, by the way, tend to have more babies than do native-born Americans.)
And preferably, do all this before the demographic time bomb explodes.