The fertility crisis started in Japan, but it won’t stay there


The world is obsessed with the shrinking Japanese population. Every year the news that the country is a little smaller can be reliably invoked for column inches, which tends to look at it as a Japanese mystery – one of those inherently Eastern concepts that foreigners don’t could not penetrate, such as wabi-sabi or the bushido code of samurai warriors.

The New York Times asked in 2012, “Without babies, can Japan survive?” The Atlantic wrote about “the mystery of why the Japanese have so few babies”. To be fair, Japan talks about the population crisis as much as anyone, with one newspaper recently calling for the declaration of a “lower birth rate state of emergency”.

The proposal echoes ‘climate emergency’ legislation passed by governments like the UK to raise awareness of global warming. But Japan is to the fertility crisis what the low-lying Pacific islands are to the environmental crisis: just an early signal of the same problems occurring everywhere else.

Japan first took its birth decline seriously in 1989, in an event known as the “1.57 shock” – the Total Fertility Index (TFR) that was recorded that year there, even less than the 1.58 of 1966, when couples avoided having children due to superstition about an inauspicious event (1) in the Chinese zodiac.

Despite three decades of task forces, government support programs and ministers in charge of the issue, little has changed. While the decline in the birth rate has been halted, Japan has been able to do almost nothing to increase it significantly. A record low of 1.26 was recorded in 2005, which rose to 1.3 in 2021 – and although this has been impacted by the pandemic, it has not exceeded 1.5 for over three decades.

Japan is often convinced that its economic malaise since the 1980s is at the root of its ills, but this link seems less than obvious. Births fell throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the “1.57 shock” reached its economic peak. On the contrary, there seems to be an inverse relationship between wealth and fertility: Okinawa, the poorest region of the country, consistently has the highest rate, with wealthy Tokyo the lowest. The experience of other countries also indicates differently, with Singapore wealthy at an even lower rate than Japan. Almost all countries in Europe are below the 2.1 level needed to maintain population, with countries like Croatia, Portugal and Greece all set to drop similar levels to Japan over the next three decades. .

“Economic conditions aren’t that helpful in explaining persistent trends,” says Mikko Myrskyla, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. “Scientists are somewhat helpless to explain what then drives long-term change.”

It’s a variation of the Anna Karenina principle: all fertile societies are alike; every infertile society is infertile in its own way.

While Western media once tended to obsess over how little sex the Japanese could have, the same phenomenon is now being seen around the world. Are there any other unique social conditions, perhaps? Seen through a Western lens, some of Japan’s problems may seem obvious: a notorious culture of overtime or waiting lists for kindergartens.

Yet many of these issues aren’t as chronic as they once were – and relieving them has had little impact on fertility. The average number of overtime hours has halved in less than 10 years, according to a report. The number of children on kindergarten waiting lists fell by almost 80% in 2021 compared to 2017, even as women’s labor force participation rate rose.

What about low gender equality in Japan? On the contrary, the increasing role of women outside the home in recent decades is one of the factors contributing to the decline, allowing women to delay marriage or not marry at all, according to a report. Neighboring Taiwan boasts the most equal society in Asia, but its ICF rate is just 1.08, the worst in the world, according to one estimate.

“Japan may have its own idiosyncrasies, but given the sheer number of countries with persistent low fertility, each reaching low fertility in their own way, it would be difficult to single out anything specific,” Myrskyla said. He cites European countries such as Italy, Germany, Finland and Hungary, where gender norms and public support for working mothers vary wildly, but the TFR is still low.

Myrskyla suggests that “adaptation” is probably a better policy response than Japan’s 30 years of trying to increase births – investing in education, keeping people in jobs longer and integrating women and immigrants to supplement the workforce. In recent years, the policy mix in Japan has also gradually focused not on changing people’s minds about marriage or children, but on helping those without opportunities. – organizing events for rural communities to meet potential partners, or the recent addition to health insurance coverage of expensive IVF treatments.

Perhaps the one thing that unites countries with low TFRs is that they tend to be wealthy, even though wealthy countries don’t necessarily have levels below replacement. Although Japan worries about its real wealth, it is still a very wealthy nation in terms of GDP per capita. Many are surprised to learn that the United States has a consistently low fertility rate of just 1.66. A Japanese saying describes a problem that is someone else’s problem as a “fire across the river”. When it comes to population, Japan’s struggles are anything but.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Workers in Japan should ask for a raise: Gearoid Reidy

• The Singapore of the future is small and rich: Daniel Moss

• India may have the biggest human problem in the world: Mihir Sharma

(1) Worryingly, the next such year, known as hinoe-uma, will be in 2026.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.

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