Japan’s prime minister on Monday warned of Japan’s demographic crisis, saying it was “on the brink of being unable to maintain social functioning” due to a declining birth rate.
In his policy speech to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said the issue was a matter of “solve it now or never” and that he “simply cannot wait any longer.”
The prime minister said, “When considering the sustainability and inclusiveness of Japan’s economy and society, childcare support is positioned as the most important policy.
Kishida added that he hopes the government will double spending on child-related programs and that a new government agency will be set up in April to focus on the issue.
Japan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare predicting fewer than 800,000 births in 2022 for the first time since records began in 1899.
The country also has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. In 2020, nearly 1 in 1,500 people in Japan was older than her 100, according to government data.
These trends are creating a demographic crisis in which there are not enough young people to fill gaps in rapidly aging societies, shrinking workforces and stagnant economies.
Experts point to several factors behind the low birth rate. The country’s high cost of living, limited space, and lack of childcare support in urban areas make it difficult to raise children, meaning fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are often far away from extended families who can provide support.
Attitudes towards marriage and having a family have also changed in recent years, with more couples postponing both during the pandemic.
Some people point to the pessimism that young Japanese people have about the future. Many people are frustrated by the pressure of work and the stagnant economy.
The Japanese economy has stagnated since the asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP growth slowed from 4.9% in 1990 to 0.3% in 2019. Meanwhile, according to 2021 data from the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average real annual household income fell from 6.59 million yen ($50,600) in 1995 to 5.64 million yen ($43,300) in 2020.
The government has launched various initiatives to address the population decline over the past decades. This includes new policies to strengthen childcare services and improve housing facilities for families with children. Some rural towns have started paying the couples who live there to have children.
Demographic changes are also a concern in other parts of East Asia.
South Korea recently set its own record for the lowest birth rate in the world. Data for November 2022 shows that South Korean women will have an average of 0.79 children in their lifetime. This is well below her 2.1 required to maintain a stable population. Japan’s fertility rate is her 1.3, while the US is her 1.6.
Meanwhile, China’s population will decline for the first time since the 1960s in 2022, adding to the woes of China’s struggle to recover from the pandemic. The last time the population declined was her 1961 famine, which killed tens of millions across the country.