Japan logs record low 810,000 births in 2021

Reuters file photo
Babies cry as they are held up by amateur sumo wrestlers during a baby crying contest at Sensoji temple in Tokyo in 2018.

The number of babies born in Japan in 2021 fell to 811,604, renewing a record low for the sixth consecutive year, according to population statistics released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on Friday.

The fertility rate, the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years, also fell for the sixth year in a row to 1.30.

With a post-war record 1,439,809 deaths recorded in 2021, deaths outnumbered births by a record 628,205, indicating a natural decrease in the size of the population.

The health ministry has attributed the decline in the number of births to a decrease in the number of women of reproductive age (15-49) by about 440,000 from the previous year, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which might have caused some couples to delay childbirth.

In all maternal age groups, the number of births fell from the previous year, except for mothers aged 40-44.

By prefecture, the total fertility rate was the lowest in Tokyo at 1.08 and the highest in Okinawa at 1.80.

The average age of mothers who gave birth to their first child rose for the first time in six years, reaching a record high of 30.9.

Marriages notched a post-war record low of 501,116 in 2021, a drop of 24,391 from a year earlier. The number of divorces in the same year totaled 184,386, down 8,867 from a year earlier.

With the number of deaths generally on an upward trend in line with the aging population, a year-on-year decline was seen in 2020, which the ministry attributed to such measures as mask-wearing and hand washing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the upward trend returned in 2021, with deaths up by 67,054 compared to the previous year.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The leading cause of death was cancer at 26.5%, followed by heart disease (excluding hypertension) at 14.9%, and old age at 10.6%. The pandemic death toll totaled 16,756, up 3,466 from the previous year.

Concerns that the pandemic could compound the decline in childbirths appear to have become reality, with the fertility rate falling to 1.30 in 2021.

The declining birthrate is likely to become ever more serious due to the fall in the number of marriages, which is strongly linked to the number of births.

“The population structure of Japan is stuck in a shrinking loop,” said Kanako Amano, a senior researcher at the NLI Research Institute. “The decline in the number of marriages is linked to the decline in the number of births. If the trend continues, members of society will not be able to support each other.”

In 2021, amid the pandemic, the fertility rate was the fourth-lowest on record, at 1.30, far below the 1.8 goal set by the government.

According to the health ministry, the fertility rate in France stood at 1.83 in 2020, while in the United States it was 1.64, and in South Korea it was 0.84.

The post-war record-low of about 500,000 marriages in 2021 has been attributed to the cancellation or postponement of weddings due to the pandemic, as well as a possible rise in the number of people who have given up on marriage due to concerns about the future.

In Japan, births often occur soon after marriage, so the low number of marriages in 2021 is likely to have an impact on the number of births from 2022 onwards.

Amid the prolonged pandemic, a situation in which the fertility rate falls below the record-low 1.26 figure of 2005 is not implausible.

In response to the situation, the government is considering increasing lump-sum maternity and child-care handouts, and expanding scholarships. It has also announced efforts to reduce the cost of child care.

A bill to establish a “Child and Family Agency” that would serve as a command post for these measures is expected to be enacted in the current Diet session.

University of Tokyo researcher Haruka Sakamoto said, “Improving the employment environment for young people and raising incomes will lead to marriages and childbirths, and thus prevent the birthrate from declining.”