Japan’s Demographic Dilemma: The Challenge of a Declining Birth Rate
Understanding the Cultural and Social Factors Contributing to Japan’s Population Decline
Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida has warned that the country is on the brink of not being able to function as a society because of its falling birth rate.
With the number of yearly births falling below 800,000 for the first time in 2022, Japan is currently experiencing one of the most severe demographic crises in the world. According to Japan’s health ministry, the number of newborns decreased to 799,728 in 2022, the lowest number since records began to be kept in 1899. At the same time period, it was reported that deaths increased 8.9% to 1.58 million.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent speech to parliament brought Japan’s dropping birthrate into sharp relief. It’s “now or never” to address the nation’s population decline, he said in the 45 minute speech, adding that “Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society.” He said that he eventually wants the government to double its spending on child-related initiatives. In April, a new government agency to focus on this problem would be established.
Dropping birth rates are a result of a number of reasons, such as growing living expenses, an increase in the number of women in the workforce, as well as easier access to contraception, which encourages women to have fewer children.
The declining social and cultural values are a major factor in Japan’s low birth rate. Family, marriage, and having kids were very important in traditional Japanese society. The emphasis has changed recently, though, moving more towards independence and individualism. Many young individuals place greater importance on their professional and personal objectives than starting a family. Furthermore, because of the high expense of living and the demanding nature of contemporary lifestyles, some Japanese see children as a burden.
Individualism has played a significant role in Japan’s declining birth rate. Japan is a country with a collectivist culture where individuals are expected to prioritise the group’s interests over their own. However, in recent years, there has been a shift towards individualism, where young people are more interested in pursuing their personal goals and ambitions rather than settling down and starting a family. One of the main ways in which individualism has affected Japan’s birth rate decline is through the rise of the “Freeter” and “NEET” phenomena. “Freeter” refers to young people who are not in full-time employment but are working part-time or temporary jobs, while “NEET” refers to young people who are not in education, employment, or training. Many young people in Japan prefer this lifestyle because it allows them to have more freedom and flexibility to pursue their personal interests, rather than being tied down to a traditional 9-to-5 job and family responsibilities. Another way in which individualism has affected Japan’s birth rate decline is through the rise of the “Konkatsu” trend, which refers to the pursuit of marriage as a personal goal. Many young people in Japan are more interested in finding a partner who shares their interests and values, rather than settling down with someone their family approves of. This trend has led to a delay in marriage and a decrease in the number of children being born. In summary, individualism has contributed to Japan’s declining birth rate by encouraging young people to prioritise their personal goals and interests over traditional family values and responsibilities.
The difficulties of balancing work and family life is another significant factor in Japan’s low birth rate. In the industrialized world, Japan has some of the greatest working hours and fewest vacation days, making it difficult for parents to raise kids and have a full-time job. Additionally, there aren’t many affordable childcare options, which discourages people from having kids.
Japan is ranked one of the world’s most expensive places to raise a child. Housing prices and education costs are particularly high, which can make it difficult for families to afford children. Japan’s high cost of living, limited space, and lack of city-based child care services make it challenging to raise kids, which results in fewer couples having kids. The declining marriage rate, financial strain, childcare load, later childbearing, and infertility are also some of the variables influencing Japan’s declining birthrate.
This decline in Japan’s birth rate has several significant consequences for the country including aging population which has put a significant strain on the country’s healthcare system, social security system, and economy. Japan today has a rapidly aging population and a declining labor force. The nation’s finances are being drained by the soaring expense of caring for its elderly residents, who make up a larger percentage of the population. Japan now has the world’s second highest proportion of people aged 65 and over, according to World Bank data. The nation’s ageing population and declining birthrate, which are both happening at a greater rate than anywhere else in the globe, will have a significant influence on the economy and society at large. There is even concern that, if the scenario persists, Japan will lose its status as a developed nation and revert to merely being a little country in the Far East.
The schools in Japan are shutting down due to population decline. As the number of children decreases, there are fewer students to fill the classrooms, and some schools become economically unsustainable. Additionally, some families choose to move to larger cities where there are more job opportunities, leaving behind fewer children in rural areas. The schools that are most affected by population decline tend to be in rural areas with smaller populations. In these areas, there may be only one or two elementary and junior high schools serving the entire community. When the number of students drops below a certain threshold, the schools are forced to close, as it becomes difficult to maintain the facilities and provide adequate education with limited resources. According to a report by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, more than 40% of elementary and junior high schools in Japan had fewer than 50 students as of 2020. This trend is expected to continue in the coming years as the population continues to decline.
It will be very difficult for Japan to sustain World’s third largest economy in upcoming years with a smaller workforce and a small number of taxpayers. The government should promote work-life balance by encouraging companies to offer more vacation days, flexible working hours, and work from home alternatives. To make it easier for parents to balance work and family life, the government should increase support for childcare facilities and introduce financial incentives to encourage people to have children. Otherwise by 2050, Japan could lose a fifth of its current population.
[Photo by Gorgo, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a student of Peace and Conflict studies at the National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan.