TOKYO - The number of child births in Japan last year plunged to yet another new low, figures released on Friday (June 7) have shown, signalling the grave social obstacles that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will need to surmount to reverse the demographic trend.
Just 918,397 babies were born last year, the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry announced, in what was the third straight year the number of newborns fell below the one million psychological barrier.
Total births dropped by 27,668 - or 2.9 per cent - from 2017, while total deaths rose 22,085 to 1,362,482 people in what was the largest margin of deaths over births on record.
The latest data comes amid increasing scrutiny over the child-rearing environment in Japan, with a recent spate of horrific child abuse incidents that have led the government to introduce measures to ban corporal punishment of kids.
Last month, a 45-year-old father in Fukuoka was arrested for using a shock collar to discipline his three children, while last week, a 21-year-old mother and her 24-year-old boyfriend in Sapporo were arrested after her two-year-old daughter was found dead. She had suffered bruising and appeared to have been malnourished.
The falling number of births also comes despite a pushback by Mr Abe's government over longstanding work practices that discriminate against working mothers in a bid to create a more conducive environment for child-rearing.
Japan already has one of the world's most generous parental leave packages, with mothers and fathers qualifying for up to a year of parental leave over which they can earn nearly 80 per cent of their salaries. Mr Abe has also enacted reforms to impose caps on overtime work and encourage measures like flexi-work.
Last month, the government enacted laws to make pre-school education free for all children aged three to five, as well as to provide free daycare services for children aged up to two from low-income families.
"The financial burden of education and child-rearing weighs heavily on young people, becoming a bottleneck for them to give birth and raise children. That is why we are making (education) free," Mr Abe said last month.
But the impact of the policies has not been felt by the society-at-large, which lambasted the wanton remarks made by at least two senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party politicians behoving them to uphold their societal responsibility and "give birth to at least three children".
Many argue that such an ideal is unrealistic given the lack of childcare centre slots and the general lack of support at the workplace. And then there is also the issue of stagnant wages that makes it prohibitively expensive for many to support a large family.
A survey last month by Japanese non-profit 1more Baby showed that 73.5 per cent found it difficult to have a second child. Eight in 10 cited economic hurdles to doing so.
"There's little sense that the environment for raising children has really improved," Japan Research Institute chief researcher Mika Ikemoto told the Nikkei. "The decline in birth rates is partly because it's become less clear to people that getting married and having children will make them happy."
The average age last year of mothers giving birth for the first time was 30.7 years, indicative of a trend that people are not marrying at all, or marrying later. Tokyo said last month that it will no longer use the term "lifelong singles" to label those who are not married at 50.
The national total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman gives birth to, dipped by 0.01 point to 1.42 - well below Mr Abe's goal of 1.8 by March 2026 but above the 1.26 recorded in 2005.
By prefecture, Okinawa had the highest fertility rate of 1.89 while Tokyo had the lowest, at 1.20.