Japan’s prime minister on Monday issued a strong warning about the country’s population crisis, saying it was “on the verge of being unable to sustain social functions” due to the falling birth rate.
In a policy address to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said the issue was “now or never” and it “just couldn’t wait any longer.”
“Regarding the sustainability and inclusiveness of our country’s economy and society, we see supporting child education as our most important policy,” said the prime minister.
Kishida added that he wanted the government to double spending on child-related programs and that a new government agency would be established in April to focus on the issue.
Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, with the Ministry of Health predicting that it will see fewer than 800,000 births in 2022 for the first time since records began in 1899.
The country also has one of the highest life expectancies in the world; In 2020, almost one in 1,500 people in Japan was 100 years or older, according to government data.
These trends have resulted in a growing demographic crisis, with a rapidly aging society, a shrinking workforce and not enough young people to fill the gaps in the sluggish economy.
Experts point to several factors for the low birth rate. The country’s high cost of living, limited space and lack of childcare in the cities makes raising children difficult, meaning fewer couples are having children. Couples in the city are also often far from extended families who could help provide support.
Attitudes toward marriage and starting a family have also shifted in recent years, as more couples put off both during the pandemic.
Some point to the pessimism about the future young people in Japan harbor, and many are frustrated by work pressure and economic stagnation.
Japan’s economy has faltered since the wealth bubble burst in the early 1990s. The country’s GDP growth slowed to 0.3% in 2019 from 4.9% in 1990, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, average real annual household income fell from 6.59 million yen (US$50,600) in 1995 to 5, 64 million yen (US$43,300) in 2020, according to 2021 data from the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
The government has launched various initiatives to counteract the population decline over the past few decades, including new measures to improve childcare and residential facilities for families with children. Some rural towns have even started paying resident couples to have children.
Demographic change is also a problem in other parts of East Asia.
South Korea recently broke its own record for the world’s lowest fertility rate. Data from November 2022 shows that a South Korean woman will have an average of 0.79 children in her lifetime – far below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.3, while the United States is 1.6.
Meanwhile, China’s population shrank in 2022 for the first time since the 1960s, compounding problems as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. The last time the population declined was in 1961 during a famine that killed tens of millions across the country.