In 2021, Japan recorded its lowest number of births in more than a century, according to government data released Friday. The figure is sure to stoke anxieties over the ongoing implications of population decline — a longtime subject of hand-wringing in the country’s policy circles and political discourse.
The fertility rate — the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime — decreased for the sixth year in a row, to 1.3. The rate is the fourth lowest on record, according to the Japanese news agency Jiji Press.
That’s compared with a rate of 2.4 worldwide in 2020, the latest year for which the World Bank has published global data. More than a dozen countries, including Ukraine and Italy, reported lower fertility rates than Japan that year. Niger stood at the other end of the spectrum, with a fertility rate of 6.7 in 2020.
An official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare told Jiji Press that the decline in the fertility rate last year was the result of decreases in the number of women of childbearing age as well as the fertility rate of women in their 20s.
The data is bad news for those in Japan who worry about the societal effects of the country’s aging and shrinking population. Nearly 30 percent of the population is over 65 years old. The decline in the working-age population has contributed to a labor shortage, which the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated, and raised concerns about a worse labor crunch to come.
Experts attribute falling birthrates to a constellation of factors.
“It’s not about sexlessness,” said Jennifer Robertson, professor emerita of anthropology and art history at the University of Michigan. “It’s all of the infrastructure that goes into the healthy maintenance of a multigenerational household.”
Men struggle to get good jobs, prompting them to forgo marriage — and people in Japan rarely have children outside of marriage. The number of marriages fell for the second year in a row in 2021, to 501,116, according to the Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper.
Meanwhile, the proportion of women receiving higher education has risen in the past half-century, as has their employment rate. Affordable day care is hard to come by, Robertson said. And in a society where women are still expected to take on significantly more domestic labor than male partners, many women are opting out of motherhood to focus on their careers, instead.
“The state is very conservative and wants to maintain the heteronormativity of marriage and this pink-and-blue, binary system of the sexual and gendered division of labor,” Robertson said. “Until that changes, they’re going to be suffering from the huge expense of maintaining an elderly population.”
Tokyo recorded the lowest fertility rate, at 1.08, Asahi reported. The latest countrywide figure falls below the government’s target rate of 1.8. And the tally of deaths in 2021 is the country’s highest since World War II, according to Asahi, with cancer as the leading cause.
But Japan is not the only East Asian country to see a decline in fertility. China released census results last year that showed the country’s population is continuing to grow, albeit only slightly. But the country’s 2020 fertility rate, 1.3 children per woman, was below Japan’s that year.
Births in China fell to a record low in 2021, part of a downward trend that has prompted authorities in Beijing to allow women to have more children and offer families cash subsidies. Hospitals, meanwhile, are turning away men seeking vasectomies.
In 2020, fertility rates in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan were below Japan’s, attributable in part to a trend in wealthy East Asian countries of people delaying marriage and rarely having children out of wedlock. Schooling is also pricey in these countries. It is also difficult for young people across the region to buy homes, according to the Economist — although less so in Japan than in China and South Korea.
But Japan has long been seen as a laboratory for what happens as a population ages. The Japanese government has introduced policies in recent decades to incentivize people to have more children, including cash incentives and free preschool, with mixed results.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s billionaire chief executive, stirred controversy last month when he said on Twitter that Japan would “eventually cease to exist” unless the demographic trends changed.
Commentators responded that Japan is not at risk of disappearing but that its future depends on immigration.
Demographic anxieties have spurred reconsideration of the country’s immigration policy, long one of the most restrictive among industrialized nations. The country rarely grants refugee status. Blue-collar foreign workers, such as the Vietnamese who staff Japan’s restaurants, can remain in the country for only five years and cannot bring their families into the country.
Immigration has been politically taboo for decades, with Japan’s right wing airing concerns that an influx of foreigners would dilute the country’s ethnic homogeneity and culture.
The Japanese government has taken steps to ease restrictions. A construction worker from China in April became the first foreign worker to be recognized under a new “specified skills” visa system created in 2019, meaning that his wife and son can come to live with him in Japan, Asahi reported.
Officials in November indicated that the government planned to expand the looser rules to other understaffed sectors beyond construction and shipbuilding, which could open up residency to a larger number of foreigners.