Japan's birth rate falls to a record low as the number of marriages also drops

The Japanese government data shows the country's birth rate fell to a new low for the eighth straight year in 2023

ByMARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press
June 5, 2024, 12:09 PM

TOKYO -- Japan’s birth rate fell to a new low for the eighth straight year in 2023, according to Health Ministry data released on Wednesday. A government official described the situation as critical and urged authorities to do everything they can to reverse the trend.

The data underscores Japan's long-standing issues of a rapidly aging and shrinking population, which has serious implications for the country's economy and national security — especially against the backdrop of China's increasingly assertive presence in the region.

According to the latest statistics, Japan's fertility rate — the average number of babies a woman is expected to have in her lifetime — stood at 1.2 last year. The 727,277 babies born in Japan in 2023 were down 5.6% from the previous year, the ministry said — the lowest since Japan started compiling the statistics in 1899.

Separately, the data shows that the number of marriages fell by 6% to 474,717 last year, something authorities say is a key reason for the declining birth rate. In the predominantly traditional Japanese society, out-of-wedlock births are rare as people prize family values.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters that it's "a critical situation.” The next six years, until the 2030s, will be “the last chance for us to possibly reverse the trend,” he said.

Hayashi noted economic instability, difficulties in balancing work and childrearing and other complex factors as main reasons why young people have a hard time deciding to get married or raise children.

The data was released as Japan's parliament on Wednesday approved a revision to laws designed to beef up financial support for childrearing parents or those expecting babies, as well as to widen access to childcare services and expand parental leave benefits. The government earmarked 5.3 trillion yen ($34 billion) as part of the 2024 budget for this, and is expected to spend 3.6 trillion yen ($23 billion) in tax money annually over the next three years.

Experts say the measures are largely meant for married couples who plan to have or who already have children, and are not addressing a growing number of young people reluctant to get married.

Takahide Kiuchi, an executive economist at Nomura Research Institute, said the measures fall short of addressing the problem.

“Simple economic measures such as increase of subsidies are not going to resolve the serious problem of declining births,” Kiuchi wrote in an analysis report, adding that a conservative mindset espousing traditional gender roles at home and at the workplace also needs to change.

Surveys show that younger Japanese are increasingly reluctant to marry or have children, discouraged by bleak job prospects, the high cost of living — which rises at a faster pace than salaries — and a gender-biased corporate culture that adds an extra burden only on women and working mothers.

Japan's population of more than 125 million people is projected to fall by about 30%, to 87 million by 2070, with four out of every 10 people 65 years of age or older.