JAPAN NEEDS DRASTIC MEASURES TO REVERSE DECLINING BIRTHRATES
On January 17, China’s population at the end of 2022 was widely reported to have registered a decline of 850,000 from a year before. Earlier reports showed that China’s working population had begun to decrease since at least ten years earlier. Last November well-known French demographer Emanual Todd visited Japan as guest of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately financed conservative think tank that I head in Tokyo. Todd had this to say about China during his visit:
“The Japanese seem gravely worried about the threat from China. In my opinion, they really have nothing to fear. China has a very serious population problem, and its national power is destined to steadily weaken going forward.”
Todd says China’s population decline is broadly attributed to three factors. Factor 1): Beijing’s one-child policy, implemented between 1979 and 2016, effectively caused a decline in the number of girls, with the ratio rising above 120 (male) to 100 (female) in many years. During this period, the Chinese clearly preferred boys as future heirs, given that they were allowed to have only one child per family. But this ratio was highly unusual in light of the ratio for most countries—between 102 and 107 (male) to 100 (female).
Factor 2): as a result of the government having maintained the one-child policy for 37 years, the idea that “one child is just fine” has firmly taken root among the Chinese people. Although they were allowed in 2016 to have up to two children and up to three in 2021, the new policies have yet to bring about significant change.
Factor 3): The outflow of population from China is larger than the inflow. In Japan, the US, and most countries in Europe, more people come to settle than leave. But it is the other way around in China, where annually 1.5 million Chinese emigrate and never return, if China’s National Bureau of Statistics can be trusted.
With China’s population steadily decreasing, there is even a bold prediction that the total Chinese population will drop from the current 1.4 billion to barely 600 million by the end of this century. This is enough reason for Todd to assert the Japanese have nothing to fear about China. There may be some Japanese who look at the unexpected decline in China’s national power and welcome a possible weakening of the Chinese menace as a big load taken off their minds. But they must realize Japan’s population decline itself is just as serious as China’s.
After paying a New Year visit to Ise Grand Shrine in western Japan early last month, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told the press his administration would call for child care support to be increased “to an unprecedented level.” Since his administration had not thus far seriously taken up Japan’s declining birthrate as a crucial theme, it must be said that this was an unexpected declaration.
Needed: Enough Income to Get Married
Japan’s declining birthrate is a serious matter spanning key ministries, including Finance, Education, Labor, and Justice. To put together effective countermeasures on the level Kishida has indicated, the state will need a powerful leader with a proven record. The politician currently charged with this assignment is Masanobu Ogura, a freshman minister. Can such a lightweight satisfactorily tackle a task of such grand proportions? Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had this to say:
“He could. Because the prime minister and his chief cabinet secretary will take command once the cabinet sets a policy. So long as the top leaders are committed, the caliber of the minister in charge doesn’t really matter.”
Suga has a point. The Kishida administration has not yet begun to formally deliberated the issue. If Kishida is able to come to grips with this all important matter and manage to turn the tide of our falling birthrates, he will unquestionably be credited with a brilliant achievement that will go down in history. This would also rectify the government’s mistaken policies to date.
Why hasn’t Japan been able to pull itself out of the predicament of its declining birthrates despite the enormous efforts made by past administrations? Go Kudo, an adjunct instructor at the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences at Nihon University, Tokyo, once explained the reason during a seminar sponsored by JINF:
“The main cause of our declining birthrates is the growing tendency among our men and women of marriageable age to not get married. However, the government’s countermeasures have not necessarily addressed this issue. Statistically, young people in their early twenties wish to get married by their late twenties, but they have not been able to fulfill their wishes. First and foremost, the government must provide enough support to financially enable young people to get married in their twenties. And yet, it is focusing on child care support and work system reform. I don’t doubt their importance, but what’s clearly more pertinent is to take measures that will enable more young families to have more income to have children.”
There is a strong correlation between marriage and childbearing in Japan, as reflected in the extremely low ratio of children born out of wedlock compared with other nations. For instance, the number is 55.8% for France, 47.4% for the UK, and 40.6% for the US. It is a mere 2.4% in Japan.
Shigeki Matsuda, a professor at the Faculty of Contemporary Sociology, Chukyo University, in Nagoya agrees with Kudo. A drastic reform of Japan’s employment environment is a must in order to resolve this problem, Matsuda stresses. In other words, we must create a society that enables young people to earn more to get married. Workers must naturally be compensated fairly for work done, but such a society must also embrace the needs of irregular workers. Opportunities must be given to jobless workers to find employment or to acquire new skills. New legislation must be enacted that will facilitate changing jobs. Because ample coordination with potential employers will also be required, the state must pursue countermeasures that will support local governments and corporations in a concerted national effort.
Time for Matchmakers to Reemerge
There are other hurdles to cross, notes Kudo. Today’s young Japanese desperately need “support for dating,” he stresses. Until a generation or so ago, there were “matchmakers” in our society who were willing to play a role in getting young men and women together. Today’s Japanese don’t appreciate this custom as much as before, with young people generally inclined to shun as annoying invitations to traditional “miai” meetings with a view to marriage. But this does not mean they have more chances of meeting casually with each other. Some local governments and organizations provide such opportunities, but what I think is just as important in Japan today is a serious review of our views on marriage.
Needless to say, everyone is free to choose the shape of their own life. We must respect the choices made by all of our citizens, including of course the members of the LGBTQ community. That said, I feel we must also make significant efforts to help our young men and woman, in a modern way, to develop positive views on marriage and curb the growing tendency to not get married.
Given that Japan has among the world’s lowest share of children of unmarried parents, as I have earlier mentioned, a possible means of overcoming our declining birth rates would be to create an environment that would enable married couples to have as many children as they may wish. Matsuda notes that a typical Japanese couple with one child is generally inclined to have another but is up against a wall of financial burden when it comes to having a third child.
A survey shows 80% of Japanese mothers wish to rear their children on their own at least in their infancy, indicating that they strongly wish to stay at home to care for their young children. That being the case, why not provide significant financial support to couples so they can have and raise children with a decent sense of financial security? This should include couples who wish to have a third child or more.
Cases vary but every month the government provides single or working mothers approximately \200,000 (US$1,540) of our tax money per head in child care support. Why shouldn’t the government provide the same assistance to stay-at-home mothers and couples wanting a third child? This way, all women would be treated equally—single mothers, working mothers, and stay-at-home mothers alike. I think we will not be able to curb our declining birthrates until and unless the government provides this type of support to all mothers and couples concerned. Of course, the government should continue to strengthen the varied measures it has implemented so far, but I believe a bold new approach is needed now to overcome the worsening decline in birthrates—one of our most pressing issues as a nation.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,036 in the February 16, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)