Japan's plummeting birth rate prompts calls for action

Japan's birth rate is set to hit another record low, with 2022 likely to see just under 800,000 new citizens coming into the world. The government has pledged more financial aid to reverse the trend, but many parents say having kids is still too expensive.

"We're surviving by cutting into our savings now," says Katahira Kazumi, already mother to a 4-year-old. "A second child is just unthinkable for us."

Katahira cut her work hours to spend more time with her family and had planned to have at least two children. But after years of expensive fertility treatment, she says they can't afford a bigger family.

"Part of me still thinks it would be great to have a second child, but realistically, it's too costly," she says.

Photo of Katahira Kazumi
Katahira Kazumi says a second child is "unthinkable" because of the cost.

Decline to continue

Japan has seen record-low births for the last six years. In 2021, the number was just 811,622 – the lowest since records began in 1899.

And this year's number may fall below last year's record low. The health ministry says about 599,000 babies were born from January through September – 4.9 percent below the 2021 figure.

The decline is happening faster than demographic experts projected in 2017, when the National Institution of Population and Social Security projected births in Japan would not fall below 800,000 until 2030.

Graphic: Number of birhs in Japan
Japan's birth rate was down in 2021 for a sixth straight year.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu describes the situation as critical. He says various factors are discouraging people from getting married, as well as raising children, but that the government will take steps to improve the situation.

Financial factors

A 2021 survey of 5,800 married couples found that they wanted more children than they actually ended up planning.

Statistically, Japanese women are expected to have an average of 1.3 children over their lifetime while they would need to have 2.1 for a sustainable population.

More than half of respondents cited financial reasons for not having more children.

"The government's financial support in Japan is only about half or even one-third of what major Western countries provide," says Matsuda Shigeki, Sociology Professor at Chukyo University. He says official encouragement to have more children has had little impact.

"Japan has been expanding measures to deal with the low birth rate for years, but that has yet to reach the level where it can convince people they can have and raise children," he says.

Small-town success story

One success story lies in Nagi in Okayama Prefecture, western Japan. The town of 5,700 residents has invested heavily over the last two decades to help parents pay for prenatal and childcare.

Nagi's fertility rate hit 2.95 in 2019, far surpassing the national average of 1.36.

"It's definitely easy to raise children in this town. I'm thinking about having a third child," says one woman in a promotional YouTube video made by the town. Nagi markets itself as family-friendly in order to attract new residents.

It funded its fertility boom by cutting municipal staff numbers and assembly members. The town gives parents 100,000 yen, or about 720 dollars, for each child born. It also supports fertility treatment, providing 1,400 dollars every year for five years.

All medical expenses for residents who are of high school age or younger are covered. School lunches at both elementary and junior high schools are subsidized.

Photo of Nagi Town
Nagi's fertility rate hit 2.95 in 2019, besting the national average of 1.36.

Moriyasu Eiji, a Nagi official, says the effort has paid off, creating a community focused on fostering the next generation.

"The plans to support new parents hinge on the town's survival," he says. "Taking measures against the falling birth rate will ultimately contribute to the well-being of the elderly and other residents."

Parents like Katahira say the whole country should consider the example set by Nagi.

"If our society can make having kids feel like the natural thing to do, I think the idea of becoming parents will be more attractive to young people," she says.

Government vows to help

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has also pledged to boost government support. He says he wants to double the budget for childcare support, including giving more money to new parents.

Kishida announced earlier this month that his government will give financial aid equivalent to about 700 dollars to help during pregnancy, as well as an extra 600 dollars upon the birth of a child. This is an addition to the 3,100 dollars new parents currently receive.

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