Municipalities at Risk of ‘Extinction’: Strengthen Measures to Nurture Next Generation

It is no easy task to stop the population from decreasing. However, unless countermeasures are taken, Japan as a whole will go into decline. Both the public and private sectors need to make all-out efforts to tackle the chronically low birth rate.

The Population Strategy Council, a group of private-sector experts, has released a report stating that 744 municipalities, or 40% of all the cities, wards, towns and villages in the nation, “could be extinct” one day if it becomes difficult to continue administrative operations due to a decline in their populations.

As the basis for the “possible extinction,” the report cites that the population of women ages 20 to 39 — which is deemed the core childbearing age group — will fall by more than 50% in the future.

In recent years, Japan’s total population has decreased by about 600,000 every year, and it is expected to halve to 62.77 million in 2100. The elderly currently account for 29% of the total population, but the figure is projected to reach 40%. While the economy is likely to shrink, it will also likely become difficult to maintain public administrative services, such as nursing care and disaster management.

Individual decisions must be respected regarding marriage and childbirth. However, if economic and other circumstances hamper people from fulfilling their wishes to marry and have children, such obstacles must be removed.

Firstly, it is essential to raise wages in order to encourage the younger generation to get married. It is also necessary to correct long working hours to allow people to balance work and child-rearing.

A similar report was also released 10 years ago. In the latest survey, the number of municipalities facing “possible extinction” decreased by 152 from the previous survey. However, the reason for the drop is the increase in the number of foreign residents who have come to Japan for work. Therefore, this does not help stabilize the Japanese population.

Based on the report released a decade ago, the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched an initiative to revitalize regional areas. However, because many local governments hastily took measures that seemed to compete for young residents, some people argue that the measures against the low birth rate, which are key to countering the population drop, were insufficient.

Given the situation, The Yomiuri Shimbun has proposed seven steps to take, such as support for young people and families. A wide range of measures, including digitization and community development, are essential to address the declining population. The government should set up a task force involving multiple ministries and agencies to build a system that can advance measures in an integrated manner.

Some regional cities have successfully turned around the low birth rate by expanding support for child-rearing, among other measures.

The municipalities of Tsukubamirai, Ibaraki Prefecture, and Nagareyama, Chiba Prefecture, have developed communities by securing housing for young couples and building childcare centers near train stations. The council has evaluated 65 such municipalities as being highly sustainable.

It is hoped that such successful cases will be shared and the efforts will spread to other areas.

It is time to review once again what form local governments should take. Wide-area management of the water supply, firefighting and other public services, as well as further mergers of municipalities, are likely to be issues to be considered.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 28, 2024)