Babies do not decide the place of their birth; neither do they make the choice of shunning a particular country or place for their appearance in this world. They pop up randomly as a shooting star, not knowing what awaits them in the unknown surroundings of light and darkness. For parents they come as blessings and for the society as a guarantee of its continuity. Hence, preserving a normal and sustainable birthrate is considered important everywhere in the world. However, a number of countries, mostly of the advanced world, are failing to do that and Japan falls in to that category.
Japan’s shrinking population coupled with the problem of an aging society is gradually becoming a serious issue that country’s leadership is trying hard to address. Despite numerous measures taken by the government in the recent past, there is no sign of any reversal of fortune for Japan as population figure showing a continuous decline.
According to recent figures released by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, number of babies born in the country in 2019 totaled 865,234; down by more than 50,000 from a year ago and marking the lowest level on record. Fertility rate too is decreasing and now stands at 1.36, far below the level needed for maintaining the existing demographic structure. It’s interesting to note that Japan’s downward trend in birthrate started with countries rapid economic development in 1960s. Same is probably true for many other advanced nations as well. It seems in most of the advanced countries including Japan, the graphic direction for economic growth and population statistics run contrary to each other.
The immediate post World War II period is marked in Japan as the period of healthy population growth. Japan welcomed 2.7 million newborn babies in 1949 alone and thus triggering the coinage of naming the generation born in that period as baby-boom generation. Japan was still economically struggling at the time and the period of rapid industrial advancement was nowhere closer. However, with the start of economic recovery in early 1950s that historians tend to give credit to the Korean War, Japanese economy slowly started its onward journey, and thus bringing prosperity to the nation. And as Japan from then on accelerated the pace of economic development, babies somehow started signaling their reluctance to come.
Demographic researchers cited a number of reasons for this slowdown in child birth and its relationship with economic development. Firstly, with the gradual expansion of economy, many women started joining the much needed workforce away from home. As a result, in families where both husband and wife became wage earners, the dual income, though made family life easier and comfortable, also compelled couples to stay away from having more than one or two children due to the lack of time for child rearing and also because of shortage of child care facilities for working mothers. Situation did not change much in subsequent years when a few other factors made it further complicated.
In most of the double income families, the household work is disproportionately falling on the shoulders of wives, who in times find it extremely difficult managing different kinds of works simultaneously in addition to the regular work outside home. Among household works where husbands seldom extend their helping hands are – child rearing, managing household chords like cooking and serving food for family members and laundry and cleaning. The overall impact is opting out for smaller families with one or two child.
Moreover, as the Japanese society later started taking steps to abolish discriminatory practices against working women, many started joining the group of professional workforce. For them the new dilemma had been to make a choice between family and career. This resulted in many professional working women going for a late marriage and also a significant number of them staying single altogether. All these had an impact on country’s fertility rate; bringing it eventually down to a stage where sustaining the current level of population becomes an impossible task. The latest figure of newborn babies is a clear sign of that.
Another disturbing element that has been seen as an important factor in having less children being born is the sense of economic instability among young people. Japanese society has gone through significant changes during the last couple of decades. Country’s job market now no longer gives a guarantee of job security as had been before. As a result, young people joining the workforce feel vulnerable and this too is forcing many of them to opt for late marriage, resulting in smaller family with one child or no children at all.
Japan’s ministry of health labor and social welfare acknowledges the economic instability among young people as well as difficulties balancing work and child-rearing as factors behind decreasing number of children and in the past suggested a number of measures including increasing the number of child care facilities and income support for families. But nothing seems to be working out properly. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet last month vowed to provide support, including fertility treatment, so that the average number of children per couple increases to 1.8.
However, the scope of economic intensive and other assistance for the young people in Japan is gradually shrinking as the government right now has to spend colossal amount of money to mitigate the economic damages from the corona virus pandemic. And this extra expenditure is coming at a time when the country is expecting sharp drop in tax revenues due to serious economic downturn. In addition, the problem of aging society remains another serious issue in need of immediate and continued attention.
One silver lining within the gloomy demographic figure is that, the number of marriages in2019 increased for the first time in seven years. Some observers believe this had been due to the desire of many couples to get married in the first year of new imperial era, counting of which started with the ascendant to the throne of Emperor Naruhito. 598,965 marriages were recorded in Japan last year, up 12,484 from the previous year. Whatever the reason, this increasing number of tying the nuptial knots might encourage babies to look again to the country of the rising sun as their point of arrival to this world.
(Tokyo, June 8, 2020)