By David McNeill
Japan is often in the world news for an unhappy reason: its sinking birthrate. The government, for example, wants to incentivize parenthood by upping its grant of 420,000 yen on the birth of a child to 500,000 yen. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, promises the city will give children under 18 living in the capital 5,000 yen per month. Koike said the national baby drought “shakes the very foundations of society”. (Births were likely to have fallen below 800,000 last year for the first time since 1899.
I have three kids and, in my view, these small handouts are as likely to reverse the baby shortage as whistling into the wind. But it’s important from the outset to make one point clear: this is not just Japan. Birthrates in advanced countries are tumbling across the planet. Fertility rates average 1.67 in 38 OECD countries — that’s well below what statisticians call the “replacement level” — the number of children (about 2.1) needed per woman to keep the population constant.
Japan’s fertility rate of 1.3 (2020) is about the same as China, and higher than Taiwan (1.0) or South Korea (0.8). It is not that much lower than the largely Catholic countries Poland (1.4) and Italy (1.3). Surveying Europe’s population drop, the Catholic News Agency notes fearfully that the uncertainty triggered by the covid pandemic has accelerated what it calls the continent’s “demographic winter.”
A 2020 survey in the Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, predicted a “jaw-dropping” fall in baby numbers with 23 nations — including Spain and Japan — “expected to see their populations halve by 2100.”
Pandemic aside, most of this is just progress. As countries modernize and women gain more control over their bodies, birthrates fall. Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon to see mothers stuck in small homes with eight children or more. The fertility rate there half a century later is 1.6 births per woman. In South Korea, women had four kids on average at the beginning of the 1970s; today they have fewer than their counterparts in any other country.
Still, it is striking how Japan and South Korea (with China coming up the rear) are on the lowest end of the global baby-making spectrum. One reason, say sociologists, is the strong hold of marriage in those countries. Half or more of all births now occur outside marriage in France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, says the OECD. The equivalent number in Japan and South Korea is negligible.
In my own discussions with female students, I find many are just not attracted to the prospect of having children with salarymen because the demands of corporate life leave wives at home alone for much of the week. In addition to the struggles of motherhood, there is the cost of raising children. Many women prefer to start their own careers first, which helps postpone marriage entanglements till later in life.
Among countries that have reversed slightly sagging fertility rates over the last decade, the key factor, says the OECD, was more equal sharing of household and parenting duties. Some surveys suggest that when men help out more at home (assuming they can), fertility rates rise.
Yet, what’s clear is that this is a complex worldwide issue. Birthrates are often stubbornly resistant to government inducements. Does anyone believe that throwing a bit of cash at young Japanese will persuade them to magically conjure up millions more babies? In the absence of that, there is another widely adopted way to boost populations: importing people. There is plenty of room for growth here: just 2% of Japan’s population is “foreign” compared to the 10.6% of OECD countries.
It is not at all clear, however, that Japan will ever take this option. Despite former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much ballyhooed plans to bring in hundreds of thousands more foreign workers, the number of foreigners living here has actually fallen in the last few years. Policymakers seem averse to immigration (I once heard Abe at an Economist conference nervously dodge the word ‘immigrants’ or imin during questions from journalists).
In the meantime, Tokyo Gov. Koike and other policymakers might ponder whether the obsession with propping up birthrates is not misplaced. We are, after all, in the midst of a climate crisis, where global resources seem stretched to the limit by our 8 billion inhabitants. By most calculations, we’ll add another 3 billion to that before the global population peaks. As science journalist Laura Spinney notes, “it’s absurd to say that what’s lacking is babies.”
Japan may just have to make the best of its declining population.
David McNeill was born in the U.K. in 1965, and has Irish nationality. He received a doctorate from Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland and lectured at Liverpool John Moores University, before moving to Japan in 2000. He was a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, and has been a Tokyo correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers. He has been a professor in the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, since April 2020. With Lucy Birmingham, he co-authored the book “Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster,” published in 2012.