Fumio Kishida is not a politician given to dramatic pronouncements. But this week he issued a stark warning to the Japanese people: have more children, or risk dragging their country into the depths of dysfunction.
His shift in persona from bland career politician to doomsayer in chief is a reflection of the demographic crisis facing Japan, one of the fastest-ageing countries on earth.
As he pointed out in a 45-minute speech to parliament on Monday, the number of births in Japan is estimated to have sunk below 800,000 last year.
“Japan is on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” he said, adding that addressing the stubbornly low birthrate “cannot wait and cannot be postponed”.
Kishida’s language was striking, but his audience does not appear to be listening.
Overcoming Japan’s demographic crisis has proved insurmountable for occupants of the Kantei – the prime minister’s office – long before Kishida moved in last autumn.
The population of the world’s third-biggest economy has been in decline for several years, and suffered a record fall of 644,000 in 2020-21, according to government data. It is expected to plummet from its current 125 million to an estimated 88 million in 2065 – a 30% decline in 45 years.
The birth rate remains at 1.3 – the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime – way below the 2.1 needed to keep the population stable. And the number of over-65s continues to grow – now accounting for more than 28% of the population.
The government’s response has been a two-pronged approach that combines crass entreaties to “go home and multiply” with financial incentives for couples who heed the call.
For all his implied warnings of a dystopian, hollowed-out Japan, Kishida is largely sticking to a script that has already been roundly rejected by young Japanese.
Policies that address structural obstacles to raising the birth rate were absent from his policy speech. Instead, he spoke in general terms about a “child-first social economy”, spearheaded by a new children and families agency.
Under loose plans that reportedly won’t be outlined until March, families will receive bigger child allowances and working parents will have access to more after-school childcare. There will be reforms that will make it easier for parents to take leave to raise families – all funded by a promised doubling in spending on children that will be finalised in June.
But Japan’s previous efforts to encourage people to have more babies have had limited impact. Subsidies for pregnancy, childbirth and childcare have failed, while some experts complain that politicians target parents who already have children while failing to ask themselves why young people are reluctant to start families.
They are talking about women like Nao Imai, a university student who told the Guardian late last year why the patter of tiny feet probably wouldn’t be part of her future. “I used to think I would be married by 25 and a mother by 27,” she said. “But when I look at my eldest sister, who has a two-year-old girl, I’m afraid to have children.
“When you have a child in Japan, the husband keeps working but the mother is expected to quit her job and look after the children. I just feel that it’s hard to raise children, financially, mentally and physically. The government says it will provide better support for families with young children, but I don’t have much faith in politicians.”
Her skepticism goes to the heart of Kishida’s challenge – one on which he has chosen to stake considerable political capital as he battles record-low approval ratings.
Because Imai is not alone. A survey by the Nippon Foundation released just before he addressed MPs found that only 16.5% of peopled aged 17 to 19 believed they would get married, even though a much larger proportion wanted to do so.
As the Mainichi Shimbun pointed out, young Japanese have not suddenly become preternaturally resistant to marriage and family life. The problems arise, the newspaper said in a recent editorial, when their ambitions meet economic reality.
“In Japan, families with children bear a heavy economic burden,” it said. “The high cost of education, such as cram school and university tuition, is a major reason why people are not having an ideal number of children. Child allowances help families raising children, but they do not lead to a fundamental correction of economic disparities.”
As long as successive conservative governments continue to shun immigration as part of a potential solution to chronic labour shortages and the increasing strain on funding for health and social security, the consensus is that the answers must come from within.
Yet Kishida’s speech was short on specifics on the long-term pressures couples say are making them think twice about having bigger families, or any children at all: the cost of compulsory and higher education, the rising cost of living and, poorly paid and unstable jobs for non-regular workers, and punishingly long working hours that make a healthy family life practically impossible.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, a natural ally of Kishida’s party, shares their skepticism. “If [the low birthrate] continues, the number of future workers will continue to decline, and society will lose its vitality,” it said in an editorial days before his speech.
“But how many more people will want to have children if the existing cash benefits are simply expanded? The effectiveness of this measure is open to question.”
While Japan waits for its prime minister to flesh out the details, his Liberal Democratic party colleagues continue to send out a very different message. Only last week, Taro Aso, a former prime minister with a history of gaffes, blamed the low birth rate on women who marry too late to make larger families a realistic proposition.
Kishida warned that Japan had reached a “now or never moment” to address its shortage of children. If experience is any guide, the smart money must be on the latter.