Japan town's initiatives helps push up its birth rate to nation's highest of 2.81

Children doing their homework at the Hokago Waku-waku Club (After-school fun club) in Isen, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Thursday, Nov 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Children doing their homework at the Hokago Waku-waku Club (After-school fun club) in Isen, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Thursday, Nov 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

ISEN, Japan (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The town of Isen, Kagoshima Prefecture, has a population of only 7,000 people, but it has another number that's the highest in Japan: 2.81, the nation's highest birth rate.

"Based on how the birth rate has risen recently, we're shooting for 3.08 in five years. We intend to reliably address the low birth rate," said Isen Mayor Akira Okubo about his town, which is on Tokunoshima island, about 450km south of Kagoshima city.

"A lot of people have helped raise our children - parents, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors. Before I knew it, I had seven kids," Ms Rieko Ryu, a 51-year-old woman with three boys and four girls, said with a laugh.

The practice of treating children as precious and raising them as a community is deep rooted on the island, she said.

Since fiscal 2009, Isen has given families 50,000 yen (S$558) on the birth of their first child, 100,000 yen for the second and 150,000 yen for each subsequent child. To fund the initiative, the town decided to reduce the cash gifts given to elderly people.

To support households in which both parents work, it created the Hokago Waku-waku Club (After-school fun club), a place for children to go after school. Staff at the town's community centre help first-grade to third-grade primary school students with their studies.

The town also subsidises travel expenses for infertility treatments, and has improved municipal housing to encourage young people to move there and introduced initiatives to lure businesses.

Training 'masters'

Other municipalities are focusing on supporting single men and women in their search for marriage partners.

Hyogo Prefecture in fiscal year 2007 began recruiting what it calls "stork ambassadors" to mediate in marriage proposals.

As of the end of October, 601 people had registered, most of them around 70 years old. Through matchmaking gatherings and marriage consultations, 39 couples have been successfully wed.

Kyoto Prefecture's birth rate in 2013 was 1.26. For the last two years, Kyoto has had the second-lowest birth rate of the 47 prefectures.

It is now attempting to train "marriage-seeking masters" to act as go-betweens. These masters earn 30,000 yen for each couple they help marry.

A recruiting drive in August and September brought 66 people, mainly in their 50s and 60s, to an explanatory meeting. The prefecture may reopen recruitment in December.

Shizuoka Prefecture is aiming to raise its birthrate to 2.0 by fiscal year 2017. As part of those efforts, it has created a video game to teach high school students about raising children and running a household.

Called Kokosei Kara Hajimeru Katei Enman Juku (Happy household tutor starting from high school), the game can be played on a computer or cellphone.

The interface is a quiz format, asking questions such as "At what age can babies be given baths?" and "What objects are infants most likely to mistakenly swallow?"

The prefecture has sent pamphlets about the game to local high schools to encourage students to try it.

Although Kyoto and Shizuoka prefecture's initiatives have just begun, officials in charge expressed hope they would help in meeting their respective goals.