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FOCUS: Calls grow for drastic steps to address Japan’s sliding birthrate

As the Japanese government launched a new agency Saturday to address the declining birthrate, experts are calling for more drastic steps than the measures recently announced by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The Children and Families Agency was created to oversee child policies, including tackling child abuse and poverty, and comes after the number of babies born in the country in 2022 slid below 800,000, a level reached more than a decade sooner than the government had estimated.

At 799,728 births, the figure represented a 5.1 percent drop from the previous year and seventh consecutive annual fall. It marked the first year births had fallen below 800,000 since records began in 1899, according to preliminary government data released in February.

“The faster-than-expected decline in the number of births is a national crisis,” said Hiroki Komazaki, the founder and CEO of nonprofit organization Florence, a child welfare aid group. “It is a man-made disaster, as the government failed to take effective measures.”

Hiroki Komazaki, the founder and CEO of nonprofit organization Florence. (Photo courtesy of Florence)(Kyodo)

In February, Kishida said his government would double its childcare budget from the current 2 percent of gross domestic product. But the government soon contradicted his pledge, saying it was not setting any specific targets for the size of the budget.

Komazaki said he was disappointed by the backtracking, especially after the prime minister was more decisive about doubling Japan’s defense spending over the next five years.

“Setting up a new agency specializing in child-related issues is a really good move. But the government cannot carry out more measures unless the budget is increased,” Komazaki said, adding that an additional 6 trillion yen ($45 billion) will be needed each year to support child-rearing households to relieve the financial burden.

The number of newborns in Japan has been on a downtrend since peaking at around 2.09 million in 1973 in the middle of the country’s second baby boom. In 1984, the number fell to 1.5 million and dropped below 1 million in 2016.

Although the government introduced various measures including a free preschool education and nursery program as well as boosting support for infertility treatment, they have so far failed to reverse the trend.

Before the launch of the new agency, Kishida announced plans to expand childcare allowances and implement measures to allow 85 percent of eligible male workers to take paternity leave by fiscal 2030, up from 14 percent in fiscal 2021.

“The next six to seven years will be the last chance to turn the declining birthrate around,” the prime minister told a press conference on March 17 while vowing to take “unprecedented” steps.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (C, standing) visits a facility supporting child rearing in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2022. (Pool photo) (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

He also warned that the rapid decline in the youth segment of the population will see the economy shrink and bring societal impacts. The country will face difficulty in maintaining the social security system and communities.

Despite the sense of alarm expressed by the prime minister, Kazumasa Oguro, a professor at Hosei University, said measures that are currently on the table are effectively an extension of past policies that have had limited effect on lifting the nation’s birthrate.

Kazumasa Oguro, a professor at Hosei University (Photo courtesy of Kazumasa Oguro)(Kyodo)

“The government needs to make a checklist on whether each policy will contribute to increasing births or not,” said Oguro, who specializes in public economics. “The government cannot implement unprecedented measures unless it discusses where to concentrate its resources.”

To raise the number of births sharply, Oguro proposes giving parents 10 million yen if they have a third child, and 10 million for each after that as an incentive to increase the size of families.

Without such a drastic measure, the number of births in Japan is likely to continue to slide and fall below the 500,000 threshold in 2052, 20 years earlier than the government predicted in 2017, he said.

While a decline in the population will reduce the sustainability of the social security system, it will have a major impact on Japan’s diplomacy and security, as the size of the population is correlated with a nation’s power, Oguro said.

“At a time when the relationship with China and the international security situation are becoming so tense, population is an important factor,” he said.

Meanwhile, Florence’s Komazaki said people in Japan should share the view that children need to be raised by society as a whole, not only by their parents.

For example, nurseries can be currently attended only by children with working parents but, given cases of child abuse occur more frequently in households with full-time housewives, all parents should have access to the service, he said.

In a draft policy package unveiled Friday, the government will consider introducing a system that would allow families raising children to use daycare centers regardless of the parents’ working status.

“We need to shift our mindset to one in which all children are to be raised in local communities, together with their parents,” Komazaki said.

Related coverage:

Japan launches new agency to deal with children’s issues

Japan vows to boost child allowances to tackle falling birthrate

Japan targets 85% taking paternity leave in FY2030 to tackle low birthrate

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