A Yomiuri Shimbun Proposal: All Hands on Deck to Address Declining Population

The Japan News
Yomiuri Shimbun building in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

The decline in Japan’s population shows no sign of reversing or even stopping. Some estimates suggest the nation’s total population could fall to about half its current level by 2100. Sitting back and doing nothing about this situation could make maintaining society as we know it very difficult in the years ahead. The government and Japanese companies must unleash every possible measure in their toolboxes to counter this situation, and cultivate an awareness that society as a whole will support “households” shouldering the burden of raising children and “young people” who want to get married and have children. The Yomiuri Shimbun is today proposing steps that should be taken in seven key areas to stem the chronic decline of the nation’s birthrate and ensure that the vitality of Japanese society will endure far into the future.

Japan’s ‘last chance’

Japan’s overall population stood at about 124.35 million in October 2023, according to an estimate by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. This figure has been trending down since the population peaked at 128.08 million in 2008. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS) has projected that Japan’s population will dip below 100 million in about 30 years and shrink to 62.77 million by 2100.

The number of births is declining faster than had been expected. In 2023, a record-low 758,631 babies were born in Japan. The IPSS had forecast the number of births would drop to this level in about 2035, but instead it was reached more than 10 years earlier.

If fewer babies being born culminates in a smaller proportion of the population being of working age — 15 to 64 years old — the burden on the working generation to support Japan’s elderly people will increase. Maintaining the social security system will become harder and there will not be enough people to provide public services and maintain key infrastructure. A significant decline in the nation’s strength will be inescapable.

Babies born this year will turn 76 in 2100. This is no longer some year in the distant future, and the nation cannot afford to keep kicking the countermeasures can down the road. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has described the period until the 2030s as being Japan’s “last chance” to reverse the trend of having fewer children. More than 1.1 million people were born around the year 2000, and the number of marriages and babies created by this generation in the 2030s — when they will be in their 20s and 30s — will have a major bearing on the future size of Japan’s population.

Getting married and having children should be respected as an individual’s decision, and young people and families must not be saddled with singlehandedly resolving the nation’s low birthrate. It is vital that young people who want to have a baby and families who want a second child do not have these wishes trampled by economic factors or shortcomings in the labor and child-rearing environments. The government and private companies must reform their way of thinking and place young people and families at the center of their considerations.

Stable financial resources

A panel of private-sector experts examining population strategy released a proposal in January that called for measures focusing on lifting the incomes of young people and promoting the employment of women to stabilize the population at 80 million by 2100. This panel is chaired by Akio Mimura, honorary chairman of Nippon Steel Corp.

To realize incomes that enable people to aspire to tie the knot and have children, the nation needs to shake off the situation in which young people are forced to take nonregular employment that provides unstable pay packets. Companies must create paths that allow nonregular employees who have worked at the same workplace for a certain period of time to choose to switch to permanent employment.

The current situation in which women raising children are forced to leave their job or face delays climbing the career ladder reinforces the impression that “having children is a risk.” The government should provide financial support to companies that introduce systems enabling employees to balance having children and holding down a job.

Some families with a young child are hesitant to have a second baby. To remove this hesitancy, fundamentally reducing the long working hours many employees endure and boosting the amount of time husbands can spend on child-rearing will be essential. Significantly hiking the extra pay rate for overtime should prod companies to reduce overtime in a bid to keep their expenses down.

Expanding incentives such as the allowance provided to families with three or more children to those who have a second child also could be expected to encourage more households to have a bigger family.

Stable financial resources will be indispensable for measures aimed at combatting population decline. Ruling and opposition parties must not shy away from discussions on how this burden will be shouldered, and they must seek a wide-ranging consensus on how to secure the financial resources needed to fund these steps. These resources could include social insurance premiums and taxes. The government should establish a permanent task force and implement long-term, comprehensive measures to address this issue.