Pandemic set to worsen Japan's dismal birth rates

Many people delay marriage, childbirth amid economic instability, social distancing rules

Children in a Halloween-themed fun train in Tokyo on Oct 30. Japan's Health Ministry has estimated that there will likely be 845,000 newborns this year, 20,000 fewer than last year which was also the fifth straight year of decline. The government has
Children in a Halloween-themed fun train in Tokyo on Oct 30. Japan's Health Ministry has estimated that there will likely be 845,000 newborns this year, 20,000 fewer than last year which was also the fifth straight year of decline. The government has warned that if current trends persist, there will likely be fewer than 800,000 babies born next year.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Alarm bells are ringing over Japan's fertility crisis as it is expected to be further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Health Ministry estimates that there will likely be 845,000 newborns this year, 20,000 fewer than last year which was also the fifth straight year of decline.

The fertility rate last year was 1.36, well under the official target of 1.8 by fiscal year 2025 - which is already below the replacement rate, or the rate required to maintain the population at a constant level, of 2.1.

The government has warned that if current trends persist, there will likely be fewer than 800,000 babies born next year.

It was only as recently as 2015 when Japan registered more than a million new births, but numbers have been in free fall since.

The forecasts are drawn from "pregnancy reports", an administrative procedure in which expectant mothers inform their local municipalities of their pregnancy, typically in their first trimester.

The number of reported pregnancies nationwide fell 11.4 per cent between May and July from the same period last year.

And the total number of pregnancy filings for the first seven months of the year declined by 5.1 per cent year on year to 513,850.

"I think the spread of the coronavirus has many people worried about getting pregnant, giving birth and raising babies," Mr Tetsushi Sakamoto, minister in charge of responses to Japan's declining birth rates, said last month.

These include financial pressures from job uncertainty that might cause people to rethink getting married and having children.

The overall jobless rate for September was a three-year high of 3 per cent, driven up by unemployed youth of child-bearing age. Those aged 25 to 34 have the highest jobless rate among all age groups, at 4.8 per cent.

The economic instability, as well as Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, have also led to delayed marriages, with the number between May and July falling 36.9 per cent from the same period last year.

This will likely accelerate the crisis, given that a vast majority of babies in Japan are born in wedlock.

As more people delay marriage and give birth later, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government is pushing for legislation to allow fertility treatments, often costing millions of yen, to be covered by national health insurance.

Mr Suga also wants to double the one-time government allowance given to newlyweds to 600,000 yen (S$7,800).

Among those who got married recently were salaryman Yusuke Hatakeyama, 27, and physiotherapist Mizuki Akutsu, 28, from Utsunomiya in Tochigi prefecture.

They had cancelled their wedding in July. Ms Akutsu told the Asahi Shimbun: "It did not feel right going through a happy occasion when so many of my colleagues were working hard and so many people were suffering."

But they decided to go ahead with the ceremony on Oct 3 with the blessings of her patients, as well as the help of a locally run wedding subsidy scheme.

Dr Emi Kataoka, a sociologist at Komazawa University in Tokyo, told The Sunday Times that the expected decline in childbirth had far outpaced her expectations.

"Young people are becoming financially poorer, and this will make it even more difficult for them to get married and have many children.

"This trend is only accelerated by the coronavirus crisis," she said.

"There must be policies beyond child-rearing support to financially help youth, who would otherwise see no means and no benefit to getting married."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2020, with the headline 'Pandemic set to worsen Japan's dismal birth rates'. Subscribe