Japan’s birth rate takes a nosedive amid rising costs of having a family

Julian Ryall

Japan’s birth rate plummeted by 5.6 per cent in the first nine months of the year, according to government data, with the figure for the whole of 2019 expected to be worse than the record 5 per cent contraction that was reported in 1989.

The implications of a rapidly declining birth rate coupled with more people living longer than ever before is of growing concern to Japan, but experts are struggling to identify exactly why the number of newborns has fallen so precipitously this year.

Although there has been a minor uptick in the number of births in Japan over the last four years, the trend over the last two decades has been firmly downwards. That falling birth rate has primarily been blamed on economic factors such as stagnant wages, greater job insecurity and rising everyday costs that have combined to put people off having larger families.

This year, however, there are some unique factors to take into account, said Hiroshi Yoshida, an expert on the economics of ageing at Tohoku University.

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“The birth rate has been gradually increasing for the last couple of years but I believe this can be attributed to the people who previously put off marriage finally going ahead and marrying and starting a family,” he said.

“And that means that now, we are likely to see the birth rate return to a gradual downtrend.”

Another consideration is that the nation’s “echo baby boomers” – those born amid the surge in births between 1971 and 1974 – are all reaching their mid-40s, meaning there are fewer women of child-bearing age.

Yet another theory that has been put forward, but is hard to prove, is that couples who were planning to have a child opted to wait a few months so that their baby would be born in a new era, named Reiwa, which followed the coronation of Emperor Naruhito in May.

Then-Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Masako smile as they leave the imperial hospital with their infant daughter Princess Aiko in 2001. Photo: Reuters

“There is certainly that kind of psychological effect to take into account and we saw the same thing happening 20 years ago, when many people wanted to wait and have their children in the new millennium,” Yoshida said.

If that assumption is correct, then the evidence should become apparent in the next few months, he added.

Japan expects to see about 880,000 births this year, a decrease of around 200,000 from just a decade ago and the lowest figure since records were first accurately collated in 1899. In the late 1940s, some 2.7 million children were born in the country every year.

The nation’s fertility rate, or the number of children that a woman gives birth to on average, also declined this year, falling for the third consecutive year to 1.42. The level that is needed to maintain the population at the current level stands at 2.07.

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In contrast, 1.36 million Japanese died last year, the highest annual figure since the end of the second world war. People aged 65 or over now account for 28.5 per cent of the population, which stands at 126.7 million.

For most couples, the biggest hurdle to them having children is often money.

“We live in the countryside in Nagano so it’s not a problem for us but all of my friends in the city say they want to go back to work after having children, but they can’t because there are not enough places at crèches or kindergartens,” said Emiko Livesey, 36, who lives in the town of Nozawa Onsen with her British husband and two sons, aged 4 and 5 months.

Children eat lunch at a nursery school in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. Photo: AFP

“But money is definitely a concern for us,” she said. “We have talked about having another child – my husband would really like a daughter – but we have to take into consideration the cost of education a few years in the future.”

Livesey and other parents say that although the government has introduced initiatives designed to ease the burden on couples who want to have children, such as making all crèches free, costs are still too high for many people.

“People stop after having one child because they just can’t afford to have another one,” she said. “But if they were to receive help on the financial side of things, I’m sure that they would have more.

“Sadly, it all boils down to money.”

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