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Solving Japan’s Fertility Crisis

Japan: aging population needs more than short-term solutions. Credit: IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 2 2018 (IPS) - While much of the global discussion for decades has been focused on overpopulation and its consequences, less can be said of the risks of low fertility and an ageing population—risks that are currently threatening the future of Japan.

Concerned by fertility trends in Asia, numerous institutions have begun to take action to prevent potentially devastating economic and social consequences.

One such group is the Asian Population Development Association (APDA), that serves as the Secretariat of the Japan Parliamentarians Federation for Population (JPFP) and is dedicated to research and studying population-related issues in countries such as Japan where limited work and research has been done around the issue.

“While population increase has been the overriding global concern, the risks of low fertility and ensuing population decline were not foreseen until recently. Thus it is understandable that no research has been done, nor has any thought been given from the government,” said Chair of the APDA Research Committee on Ageing Kei Takeuchi during a meeting.

The Young, the Old, and the Restless

Though the decline in fertility rates is not a new phenomenon, the East Asian nation has seen its population rapidly diminish in recent years.

According to the United Nations, Japan’s fertility rates were approximately 2.75 children per woman in the 1950s, well above the total fertility rate of 2.1 which has been determined to help sustain stable populations.

Today, Japan’s birth rate is 1.44 children per woman leading to the population declining by one million in the past five years alone.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research found that if such trends continue, Japan’s population is expected to decrease from 126 million today to 88 million in 2065 and 51 million by 2115.

With fewer children and young adults, a vicious cycle is set in motion: spending decreases which weakens the economy, which dispels families from having children, which then weakens the economy further.

“As the population aged 18 years old is decreasing, the number of universities needs to be reduced, which will limit the number of new academic posts, lack the opportunity to cultivate researchers, and diminish Japan’s competitiveness in the international arena,”

At the same time, as people have a higher life expectancy, the elderly now make up 27 percent of Japan’s population in comparison to 15 percent in the United States.

This means less revenues and higher expenditures for the government, less funds for pensions and social security, and an even weaker economy.

Chair of the Asian Population and Development Association Yasuo Fukuda, a former Prime Minister of Japan noted that a dwindling population is not bad in and of itself but rather its rapid decline.

“The true problem is that when the population decreases too drastically, the social systems will become unsustainable and incapable of responding to problems associated with it, which will make it harder for young people to develop concrete visions for their future,” he said.

Are the Kids Alright?

One of the factors that is often considered to be a driving force of lowering fertility is urbanization, APDA said, as urban fertility rates are often lower than those in rural areas.

This is often because urban areas tend to boast better access to services such as education and employment as well as gender equality, all of which affect people’s decisions whether or not to have children.

Japan is one the most densely urbanized countries in the world.

In 1950, 53 percent of the population lived in urban areas; by 2014, the figure shot up to 93 percent.

Japanese rural towns are disappearing at a rapid rate as young adults move to cities for work and the ageing population either moves out or dies out. Wild boars are now found to be taking over the abandoned areas.

However, the correlation between urbanization and fertility is still unclear due to different contexts and data limitations.

Many have also pointed to the lack of opportunities for young people in the country.

Though the unemployment rate is below 3 percent, the rise in unstable employment may be leaving young men and women unable or unwilling to have children.

Approximately 40 percent of Japan’s labor force is “irregular,” or have temporary or part-time jobs with low salaries. According to the Labor Ministry, irregular employees earn 53 percent less than those with stable jobs.

Men, who are still considered breadwinners for the family unit, may therefore be less likely to consider getting married or having children because they can’t afford to do so.

On the other end of the spectrum, Japan’s culture of overwork may also be impacting birth rates as young people find themselves with no time for a social life or even basic needs like sleeping or eating.

Such conditions have even led to “karoshi,” or death by overwork, across the country.

Most recently, journalist Miwa Sado died of a heart failure and investigators found that she had logged 159 hours of overtime work in June 2013 alone, one month before she died.

In 2015, 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi committed suicide. It emerged that she worked for over 100 hours of overtime at her advertising job and had barely slept in the period leading up to her death.

Both deaths were ruled as “karoshi.”

Research, Action Needed

Due to the lack of data around the issue, APDA highlighted the need to promote research in order to help create and implement policies to ensure sustainable development and a stable, healthy population.

Shinzo Abe’s government has begun working on the issue in recent years, promising to raise the fertility rate to 1.8 by 2025.

They have also taken steps to make it easier for people to raise children by providing free education, expanding nursery care, and allowing fathers to take paternity leave. Local governments have even set up speed-dating services across the country.

However, Abe’s administration has been criticized for not doing enough, particularly around labor reform.

“Measures for low fertility, gender-equal society, and work-life balance are three important pillars,” said Chief Research Advisor APDA Project Research Committee on Ageing Makoto Atoh.

The APDA team also pointed to the need to invest in and revitalize regional areas and communities.

“This is a serious situation. We must come to grips with the issue of low fertility, but there is little research on it,” Takeuchi said.

APDA plans to hold several meetings and events in order to raise awareness and widen coverage on the issue of low fertility.

 
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  • colowww

    Why is gradual population decline a problem? Especially in a country as densely populated as Japan. For the record, Japan is three to four times as densely populated as California, and New York. It is also twice as densely populated as most EU countries.

  • ProsperityForRI

    The footprint of industrial nations needs to shrink, The idea that disaster will happen as the population shrinks is just the fantasy of those folks who have no concern about the over use of resources on the planet. Japan should just plan on shrinking the economy and enjoy the ride. if Japan was 51 million people think of how much easier it would be to generate all the electricity cleanly. And the return of forests and wild boars is just what the planet needs. We do need to seriously reforest the planet. Declining populations make that much easier.

  • colowww

    Thank you, very well said.