Urgent measures needed to address declining birth rate in Japan

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Last year, 865,000 babies were born. The figure was down by 50,000 from the previous year and the lowest since statistics began in 1899. AFP

The decline of Japan’s birth rate is further accelerating. The government must analyse the factors causing the decline and take effective measures.

The Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry has released demographic statistics for 2019. The natural population decrease, calculated by subtracting the number of births from that of deaths, stood at 515,000, the largest decrease ever.

The rate of population decline is increasing year by year. If the situation remains unchanged, there will be a shortage of workers and downward pressure will be put on economic growth. The burden on the working generations, who support the elderly, will also increase. The vitality of society will be damaged.

Last year, 865,000 babies were born. The figure was down by 50,000 from the previous year and the lowest since statistics began in 1899. As the number of women in their 20s to 30s, the leading generation for childbirth, has decreased, the decline in the number of births is expected to continue.

The serious problem is that the total fertility rate, which is the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime, has declined for four consecutive years to 1.36. The index recovered to 1.45 in 2015, but fell into a downward trend again.

In the background is the growing tendency for people to get married later, or not marry at all. The average age of mothers who gave birth to their first child last year was 30.7, or four years older than the average about 30 years ago. Even if they want to have a second or third child, the reality may be that it is difficult to have one.

In its outline for measures to deal with the declining birth rate, which was decided last month, the government set a goal of raising the fertility rate to 1.8, helping people achieve their hopes for marriage and childbearing. It aims to realise the goal by 2025. But the current situation is far from the achievement of that goal.

It is a matter of personal choice whether to have a child. With that in mind, the government should take bold supportive steps to help those who want to get married or have children to fulfill their wishes.

The outline includes the expansion of child allowances for households with three or more children, and the provision of subsidies for fertility treatments, among other things.

Temporary benefits alone are not enough to raise the fertility rate. Why do young people hesitate to have children? It is necessary to clarify the challenges and come up with policies that reflect the realities of the situation.

It is hoped that measures will be taken steadily in a comprehensive manner. The measures include securing employment for young people and stabilising the working conditions for non-regular workers even amid the coronavirus disaster, increasing the number of childcare facilities and providing high-quality housing.

With the spread of staggered working hours and telecommuting, there is growing momentum to reconsider the way people work based on long working hours. It is desirable for both men and women to be able to work and raise children at the same time.

In urban areas, the number of parks where children can play is decreasing. Some mothers are worried about raising their children and feel isolated. It is important for local governments and communities to cooperate in building a society conducive to child-rearing.