Japan’s prime minister issued a dire warning about the country’s demographic crisis on Monday, saying he was “on the brink of not being able to maintain his social functions” due to the falling birth rate.
In a political speech to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said it was a matter of solving the problem “now or never” and that he “simply can’t wait any longer”.
“Thinking about the sustainability and inclusiveness of our country’s economy and society, we place support for children’s education as our most important policy,” the Prime Minister said.
Kishida added that he wants the government to double its spending on child-related programs and that a new government agency will be created in April to focus on the issue.
Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, with the Health Ministry predicting it will register 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, nearly one in 1,500 people in Japan were 100 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 of a stagnating economy.
Experts point to several factors behind the low birth rate. The country’s high cost of living, limited space and lack of childcare services in cities make it difficult to raise children, which means fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are also often estranged from extended family who could help support them.
Attitudes towards marriage and starting families have also changed in recent years, with more couples postponing both during the pandemic.
Some point to the pessimism of young people in Japan towards the future, many of whom are frustrated by work pressures and economic stagnation.
Japan’s economy has stalled since the bursting of its asset bubble in the early 1990s. The country’s GDP growth slowed from 4.9% in 1990 to 0.3% in 2019, according to the Bank world. Meanwhile, the average real annual household income has fallen from 6.59 million yen ($50,600) in 1995 to 5.64 million yen ($43,300) in 2020, according to 2021 data from the Ministry of Health. Health, Labor and Social Affairs of the country.
The government has launched various initiatives to address population decline in recent decades, including new policies to improve childcare services and improve housing for families with children. Some rural communes have even started paying the couples who live there to have children.
Demographic change is also a concern in other parts of East Asia.
South Korea recently broke its own record for the lowest fertility rate in the world, with data from November 2022 showing that a South Korean woman will have an average of 0.79 children in her lifetime – well below of the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.3, while that of the United States is 1.6.
Meanwhile, China’s population shrunk in 2022 for the first time since the 1960s, adding to its woes as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. The last time its population plummeted was in 1961, during a famine that killed tens of millions of people across the country.