Published17 hours ago
Japan’s prime minister says his country is on the brink of not being able to function as a society because of its falling birth rate.
Fumio Kishida said it was a case of “now or never.”
Japan – population 125 million – is estimated to have had fewer than 800,000 births last year. In the 1970s, that figure was more than two million.
Birth rates are slowing in many countries, including Japan’s neighbours.
But the issue is particularly acute in Japan as life expectancy has risen in recent decades, meaning there are a growing number of older people, and a declining numbers of workers to support them.
Japan now has the world’s second-highest proportion of people aged 65 and over – about 28% – after the tiny state of Monaco, according to World Bank data.
“Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” Mr Kishida told lawmakers.
“Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.”
He said that he eventually wants the government to double its spending on child-related programmes. A new government agency to focus on the issue would be set up in April, he added.
However, Japanese governments have tried to promote similar strategies before, without success.
In 2020, researchers projected Japan’s population to fall from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million by the end of the century. The population is currently just under 125 million, according to official data.
Japan has continued implementing strict immigration laws despite some relaxations, but some experts are now saying that the rules should be loosened further to help tackle its ageing society.
Falling birth rates are driven by a range of factors, including rising living costs, more women in education and work, as well as greater access to contraception, leading to women choosing to have fewer children.
Last week, China reported its first drop in population for 60 years.
‘Hostility to immigration has not wavered’
Japan is home to the oldest population in the world, after tiny Monaco. It is recording fewer births than ever before. By 2050, it could lose a fifth of its current population.
Yet its hostility to immigration has not wavered. Only about 3% of Japan’s population is foreign-born, compared to 15% in the UK. In Europe and America, right-wing movements point to it as a shining example of racial purity and social harmony.
But Japan is not as ethnically pure as those admirers might think. There are the Ainu of Hokkaido, Okinawans in the south, half a million ethnic Koreans, and close to a million Chinese.
Then there are Japanese children with one foreign parent, which include my own three.
These bi-cultural kids are known as “hafu” or halves – a pejorative term that’s normal here. They include celebrities and sports icons, such as tennis star Naomi Osaka. Popular culture idolises them as “more beautiful and talented”. But it’s one thing to be idolised and quite another to be accepted.
If you want to see what happens to a country that rejects immigration as a solution to falling fertility, Japan is a good place to start.
Real wages haven’t grown here in 30 years. Incomes in South Korea and Taiwan have caught up and even overtaken Japan.
But change feels distant. In part it’s because of a rigid hierarchy that determines who holds the levers of power.