Japan’s falling population grabbed headlines earlier this month after a new report showed that in 2022, the country posted the fewest number of childbirths in 123 years.
“We recognise that the falling birth rate is a critical situation,” said Yoshihiko Isozaki, a senior Japanese lawmaker, striking a measured tone. Another lawmaker Masaka Mori, who serves as an advisor to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, was much more direct, remarking: “If we go on like this, the country will disappear.”
Data released by Japan’s health ministry showed that 7,99,728 babies were born in 2022, while around 1.58 million people died in the same period. Though experts have attributed this in part to the decline in marriages during the pandemic years, the data is still worrying for Japan, which already has one of the oldest societies in the world with a median age of 48.4 years. The effects are already being felt in the nation’s labour market, healthcare and financial systems. It is a mark of how deeply the issue is embedded in Tokyo’s psyche that this year’s Oscar entry from Japan (titled Plan 75) is a dystopian movie about a government plan to euthanise the elderly to deal with a super-ageing society.
However, the problem is hardly unique to the East Asian nation. Its closest neighbours China and South Korea too have seen declining fertility rates and population growth, though at very different scales. On the other side of the world, European nations like Italy and Spain have witnessed a more gradual change in their demographics.
Falling birth rates
Japan, like countries around the world in the 20th century, boasted of high birth rates, with records showing 33.9 births per 1,000 people in 1901. It peaked in 1923, with a record 35.2 and hovered in the 30s for the better part of the next two decades. The first significant dip in births occurred in 1938-39, reaching 26.6 in 1939 as the Second World War plunged the world into uncertainty. However, the rates climbed to an average of over 30 in the four years that followed, before reducing again. Japan does not have official records for the 1944-46 period, but a 1953 paper on Japan’s post-war problems estimates the birth rates for these years at around 30, 25 and 25 respectively.
The post-war years, dubbed ‘baby boom’ years, saw an increase in the number of births as soldiers returned home and the economy was flush with jobs. Japan recorded 34.3 births per 1,000 people in 1947, but the birth rates tapered off through the decades, settling into single digits at the beginning of the 1990s.
However, a significant blip in this pattern was seen in 1966, when the birth rate dipped from 18.6 in 1965 to 13.7, before spiking slightly (19.4) in 1967. A World Bank report attributed this to a local belief that girls born in the year of ‘Fire Horse’, which comes every 60 years, will “have a bad personality and kill their future husband.” The report suggested that families put off having children that year, aware of the disadvantages that girl children born that year may face in society.
Meanwhile, in the same period, death rates also fell, driven by advances in medicine, access to better nutrition and education, economic growth and improvements in living standards. Though the Japanese are famous for their high life expectancy, the death rates gradually increased in the ageing population overtaking the birth rate for the first time in 2007. It has steadily increased to 11.7 in 2021 while the birth rate has decreased to 6.6 in the same period.
Japan is hardly alone in this predicament. Neighbouring South Korea’s fertility rates have been the worst in the world for years now, with the country recording less than 1 birth per woman since 2018. Seoul’s fertility rate stands at 0.8 as of 2020, according to a World Bank report from 2022 data. China, too, has seen a sharp fall in fertility rates due to the controversial one-child policy which was relaxed in 2015.
In Europe, Italy and Spain have recorded fertility rates far lower than the replacement level for decades now. For instance, Italy’s fertility rate fell from 2.4 in the 1960s to 1.93 in 1977 and has not climbed above 2 since. However, it has managed to keep the rates from plummeting, maintaining an average fertility rate of 1.34 in the two decades since 2000, shows World Bank data. Spain too has a similar story, with fertility rates declining from 2.86 in 1960 to an average of 1.31 between 2000 and 2020.
Like Japan and South Korea, these European countries too have benefited from targetted measures like monthly child allowances, state support for buying homes for families and crowdsourced childcare models. Additionally, they are an attractive target for immigrants, primarily from Western Europe and the neighbouring North African nations. Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, have had less inclination and success with immigration due to linguistic and cultural barriers.
What about Scandinavian nations?
Also worth mentioning are the Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, which have some of the highest median ages in the world. And though their fertility rates are below the replacement rate, their population continues to grow at a reasonable rate due to a combination of high quality of life and immigration.
These nations consistently rank high in terms of quality of healthcare, education, childcare, and low-income inequality. While Denmark mostly relies on immigrants from non-Scandinavian neighbours in Europe, Finland, Sweden and Norway have welcomed immigrants from war-torn West Asian and African nations like Syria, Iraq and Somalia.
Over the past few years, Japan has been focussing on policies to encourage couples to have children. Central and provincial governments have come up with cash handouts for parents, subsidised housing and daycares, and aid for couples opting for infertility treatments, among others. It has also opened up important conversations about the gender disparity in Japanese society where women bear the responsibilities of childcare at a disproportionate rate.