Economic Growth, Gender Equality Needed to Restore Japan’s Birth Rate

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A woman with her baby takes part in a government panel of experts that discusses measures against the low birth rate in Tokyo in April.

Raising children is a challenge, and social conditions can make it harder than it should be.

In one extreme example, a young mother with a baby in a stroller was forcibly accosted by a stranger near a train station in Tokyo. The mother reportedly said that the man bumped into the stroller and then became aggressive when she said, “Sorry.” He grabbed the handle of the stroller as if to take both it and the baby away, violently shaking it as the baby clung to the stroller’s safety bar with both hands. A video of the incident, which recently trended on social media, ends with passersby coming to intercede.

Incidents involving strollers at stations, bus stops and public transportation in Tokyo are not uncommon and have become a topic of conversation on social media and sometimes in the news. Nor are such problems limited to strollers. Complaints that the voices of children are “noisy” have also been received by local governments that manage daycare centers and parks in various areas.

Novelist Asako Yuzuki wrote an essay describing her own bad experiences with strangers while raising her baby son, including a time when an elderly man kicked her stroller. She said she had heard many similar stories from her friends. “Every parent is living in tension. Rather than focusing on their time with their children, everyone is nervously on the lookout to see if anyone nearby is giving them a cold stare,” she wrote.

Given that situation, it’s no wonder Japan’s birth rate continues to decline. The total fertility rate (TFR), a statistic measuring the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime, sank to 1.26 in 2022, the same level as in 2005, when it was the lowest on record.

If this trend continues, Japan’s working-age population — people aged 15 to 64 — is estimated to be 40% smaller by 2070 than it was in 2020, and it will certainly become very difficult to maintain society. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has repeatedly stated that “we will reverse the trend of the declining birth rate,” and the central government has put together a comprehensive policy menu, which includes the expansion of cash benefits such as child allowances and scholarships, under the banner of “unprecedented” measures to address the low birth rate.

The declining birth rate has been a political issue since the 1990s. However, the government’s efforts to improve childcare facilities, expand parental leave benefits and provide free early childhood education have not yet increased the number of births significantly.

Why has the problem remained unsolved for so long? “In the case of Japan, economic stagnation and gender inequality are the main reasons,” says Takumi Fujinami, an advanced senior economist at the Japan Research Institute in Tokyo.

To what extent are the economy and the TFR related? Finland is known to offer excellent support for childrearing and a good environment for having and raising children, but that country’s TFR has been declining noticeably in recent years, from 1.87 in 2010 to 1.37 in 2020, a level not much different from Japan’s.

According to Fujinami, Finland’s unemployment rate remained high for some time after the global financial crisis of 2008, and wages, which had been on the rise, leveled off in the 2010s. Finland-based Nokia, once the world’s largest cell phone manufacturer, was on the verge of bankruptcy around 2012, a symbol of the uncertainty many young people still feel about their future. “This deterioration in the economic and employment environment is thought to have contributed to the decline in the birth rate,” he explained.

Germany, on the other hand, saw its TFR increase from 1.39 in 2010 to 1.59 in 2016, and it has remained above 1.50 since then. Like Japan, it lagged behind in providing childcare support for working mothers and suffered from a low birth rate in the 1990s. The rise in its birth rate in the 2010s is often regarded as a result of improvements in the childcare environment and the promotion of male parental leave.

However, Fujinami’s analysis is that “the period when the TFR rose in Germany coincided with the period when Germany was the sole winner in the European economy after the global financial crisis,” and that “the decline in the unemployment rate and the rise in wages also positively affected the birth rate.”

Since the collapse of the asset bubble in the 1990s, not only has the average wage of Japanese workers failed to rise, but the younger generation has fallen to a lower wage level than the generation that entered the workforce during the bubble economy. The percentage of young people working precariously in non-regular employment has also increased since the 1990s.

In Japan, the median value of wages for women is less than 80% of that for men. This is the largest disparity seen in the Group of Seven nations, and social expectations persist that women should take on most of the housework and childrearing responsibilities. Japanese women still find themselves having to choose between the path of marriage and childbearing and the path of a career and higher income.

Naturally, many women want their husbands to have an income above a certain level if they do marry, and the percentage of both men and women who are unmarried has risen significantly as wages for young men fell after the bubble economy collapsed. In Japan, where it remains overwhelmingly the norm for people to marry before having children, the rising rate of unmarried people has contributed to the declining birth rate.

In the end, according to Fujinami, “We definitely need economic growth” to improve the birth rate. “The government should promote greater use of information technology and artificial intelligence, which will spur corporate growth and lead to higher wages for young people. It should also eliminate the gender gap in employment and wages.”

What do young people themselves think of the current situation and the government’s comprehensive measures to combat the low birth rate?

Ayano Sakurai is a representative of Gencourage, a volunteer group that promotes awareness of gender issues. She is also a member of a government expert panel that discusses the details of and financial resources for measures to address the birth rate issue. In that role, she has often called for “putting the elimination of difficulties in life caused by gender and other factors at the center of policies, regardless of whether or not one has children.” As one of the panel’s few youth representatives, at 28 years old, she insisted that the government should focus on policies that create more time, money and emotional freedom so that young people can fall in love and get married — in addition to policies to change the male-centered nature of society. However, considering the policy menu the government has compiled so far, it is not certain how well her voice has been heard.

The declining birth rate, a trend that has continued for more than 30 years, is due to the government’s failure to respond to changes in society and to provide relief to those who find life difficult. It is high time for the government to firmly secure permanent financial resources and take measures in the right direction.

But without waiting for the government to act, it would also help if ordinary people behaved less like that hostile stranger near the train station, and more like the caring neighbors who came to a young mother’s aid.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Ikuko Higuchi

Higuchi is a staff writer in the Lifestyle News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.