Japan readies "unprecedented" effort to arrest falling birthrate

Having spent years tinkering around the edges of a looming demographic crisis, senior members of Japan's ruling parties now concede they have one last chance to arrest the slide in the population – before it goes into irreversible decline. To that end, they've drawn up a battle plan that Prime Minister Kishida Fumio says is part of an "unprecedented" effort to get people to have more children.

The population crisis has snowballed faster than experts anticipated. Last year Japan produced fewer than 800,000 babies, the lowest number going all the way back to 1899, when authorities started keeping track.

Announcing the draft plan at a news conference in March, Ogura Masanobu, minister in charge of declining birthrate measures, declared that "the next six to seven years will be Japan's final opportunity to reverse the downward trend in births. We must tackle this most urgent issue over the next three years."

Births have been declining faster than experts predicted.

More money for parents

Government officials are aiming to roll out the draft plan over a three-year period starting from April 2024.

One proposal is to remove the upper income cap for monthly cash payments to parents, and to extend the payments, which currently end when a child reaches 15, until graduation from high school.

The government would also increase the size of the allowance for families with three or more children.

On top of that, it would expand the benefits available in cases where both parents take leave from work at the same time within eight weeks of childbirth, providing the full amount of their incomes for up to four weeks.

To make dual leave easier on businesses, the government says it will increase subsidies for small and medium-sized enterprises that hire people to fill in or top up the pay of existing employees who cover the gap.

Improving childcare

A shortage of adequate childcare is considered a major disincentive to starting a family in Japan, and here too the government is preparing to take action.

Presently, the maximum number of children allowed under the care of a single nursery school teacher is determined by age. Typically, that means a maximum of three kids under the age of one; up to six aged between one and two; and up to 30 aged four or older.

The draft says if a nursery school lowers the limit for children in the middle bracket to five and keeps it at a maximum of 25 for children in the older bracket, it will be entitled to subsidies to cover the increase in operational costs.

In Japan, the maximum number of children allowed under the care of a single teacher is determined by age.

The plan also proposes to ease the financial burden on parents and prospective parents who are paying off debts from university degrees or other higher education qualifications.

This would involve raising the income limit for people who can apply for a reduction in student loan repayments from 3.25 million yen to 4 million yen, and further reducing repayments for people with children.

"This issue isn't just about the younger generation," says Watanabe Yumiko, who runs an organization that provides assistance to children of families living in poverty. "It's really important that everyone shares the burden."

Watanabe has spent years campaigning for a reduction in the cost of education. She says she's pleased to see the government is finally doing something on this front.

Expert: 'More drastic measures needed'

"I wouldn't call the new measures unprecedented," says economist Oguro Kazumasa, a professor at Hosei University. "The new policies are effectively an extension of past policies that have so far had little effect in convincing parents to have more children."

Oguro says the government needs to first analyze each policy to see if it will really contribute to increasing Japan's birthrate and then concentrate resources on specific measures.

He suggests that the government focus on the current average number of kids per family in Japan, which is about two. To raise the number, Oguro proposes giving parents 10 million yen if they have a third child, and 10 million for each after that as an incentive to have bigger families. Currently, the government distributes 500,000 yen upon the birth of a child.

"Without such a drastic measure, the number of births is likely to continue to fall, going under 500,000 in less than 30 years. If we get that point, it seems impossible to reverse the trend."

Gearing up for action

On April 1, the government launched the Children and Families Agency, under the auspices of the Cabinet Office, and committed 400 staff to run its day-to-day functions. The agency handles a range of matters, ranging from child benefits to support for parents through pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing. It also oversees daycare services and is responsible for tackling domestic abuse, bullying and poverty.

A new Japanese agency is responsible for implementing policies for children and families.

At the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Kishida pledged that his government will create a society with children at its center. "We'll listen to children and reflect their opinions in our measures," he said.

The government is still discussing funding for the proposals, but it aims to have the details in place by June.