Number of newborns in Japan fall below 900,000 for the first time

In a photo taken on Oct 14, 2019, a family takes a selfie photo at the Beppu Bay Service Area in Beppu, Japan. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - The number of births in Japan this year is forecast to plunge drastically by nearly 6 per cent to 864,000, falling under the 900,000 mark for the first time since record-keeping began in 1899.

The woeful Health Ministry data, released on Tuesday (Dec 24), paints an insurmountable picture of the country's demographic challenges despite the government's efforts to encourage more births.

Nobody expects a quick fix or magic bullet to resolve what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has dubbed a "national crisis", but the speed of decline in births is even faster than forecasts by the government's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS).

The number of newborns, which fell below the one million psychological barrier for the first time in 2016, is now falling two years faster than projections that had only forecast 860,000 births in 2021.

Dr Ryuichi Kaneko of Meiji University, a former director-general at the IPSS, said the shrinking numbers of females of child-bearing age is one main reason for the decline in the number of births.

Further, the burst of the economic bubble in the 1990s had led to a so-called "employment ice age generation" of school leavers who could not secure regular employment. The lack of economic means or confidence to even provide for themselves is a major deterrent for any would-be parents, he said.

What this has given birth to is a vicious cycle of fewer women of childbearing age and fewer babies, as well as more elderly and a greater burden on social resources, he said, noting that the trend will continue.

While some observers had predicted that the number of marriages and pregnancies this year would rise, given the festive cheer with the dawn of the new Reiwa (beautiful harmony) era on May 1, the total number of marriages fell 0.6 per cent from last year to 580,000.

Still, the Health Ministry noted that the number of marriages registered in May alone was double that of last year's, a trend which could portend more childbirths from next year. A spokesman said: "We believe that some couples who pushed back their marriages might also delay trying for a baby, and so we expect the possibility of more childbirths next year."

Meanwhile, the record low number of births has coincided with a record high number of deaths. The natural population decrease - a situation where the number of deaths exceeds births - was more than 510,000 this year. This is the first time the drop has surpassed 500,000.

While the total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime, has recovered from a low of 1.26 in 2005, it is again on a decline from 1.45 in 2015 to 1.42 last year.

The government wants to raise the fertility rate to 1.8 by 2025, a target that appears out of reach.

The latest demographic data comes despite Japan's very generous childcare leave benefits. New parents are legally entitled to leave of up to a year, and are paid up to 80 per cent of their wages through government benefits.

Mr Abe has also pushed to dismantle antiquated practices by implementing such policies to encourage work-life balance, promote child-rearing among men, reduce waiting lists at daycare centres, and offer free early childhood education.

But Dr Kaneko, of IPSS, said the government also has to look at how to ease the social security burden on the younger generation, by "reconstructing the social system from the very foundation" to embrace improved health and longevity.

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