Reassess measures for tackling low birth rate

Despite the implementation of various measures, the long-term decline in Japan’s birth rate has not been reversed. It is necessary for the government to identify anew the challenges involved and make tenacious efforts to boost the number of children being born.

According to population statistics released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of babies born in 2021 fell to 811,604, nearly 30,000 fewer than in the previous year. This is the sixth consecutive year for the number of births to have renewed a record low.

The latest figure is extremely serious. It is equivalent to only about 40% of the number of babies born during the second baby boom in the 1970s, when 2 million children were born every year.

The data also showed that the pace of decline has been accelerating. There were 1.2 million newborns in 1998, and it took 18 years from that time for the annual number to fall by about 200,000 to below 1 million. However, only six more years were required for the figure to decrease by another 200,000.

If the population continues to shrink at this pace, there will be a smaller number of people supporting society, and the population as a whole will age even further. The economy and the government’s fiscal condition will come under critical strain.

To support child-rearing, the government has made efforts to resolve the issue of children waiting to enter nursery schools. It has also eased the financial burdens on child-rearing households by making preschool education free, in addition to expanding childcare leave. However, it must be said that these measures have had only limited effects in preventing the birth rate from declining.

Marriages notched a postwar record low of about 500,000 in 2021, a drop of more than 20,000 from a year earlier. The decline was probably due to more people deciding to put off marriage or having fewer chances to meet potential partners because they were asked to refrain from going out and dining in groups amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In prioritizing infection prevention, some hospitals introduced restrictions on their handling of childbirth, and some women who wanted to return to their respective hometowns to give birth found it difficult to do so under such circumstances. It is regrettable that many women hesitated to get pregnant.

In the past, companies used to support the lives of young couples through generous employee benefits. The government and the private sector should cooperate to raise wages and turn non-regular workers into regular ones so as to encourage young people to decide to get married. It is also important to take measures to help such people secure housing in urban areas.

The government introduced a measure this spring to have fertility treatment covered by health insurance. It is essential to enhance services in obstetrics and pediatric care as part of efforts to create an environment in which women can give birth without worry.

The fertility rate, or the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years, fell to 1.30, the fourth-lowest figure ever. The number of women of childbearing age will decrease further. It is hoped that as many couples as possible who want to have children can fulfill their wishes.

Many young people have negative impressions of raising children, thinking that it is expensive and comes with physical and mental burdens. It is important to share with them the joy of raising children and spending time with family members from time to time.

A bill to establish a “child and family agency” is expected to pass during the current Diet session, with the government aiming to launch the new entity in April next year. The envisioned agency must compile effective measures from a comprehensive perspective and it must be ensured sufficient financial resources to function as a command center for child policy.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 10, 2022)