Japan’s prime minister issued a stern warning on Monday about the country’s population crisis, saying it was “on the verge of not preserving social functions” because of the declining birth rate.
In a policy address to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said it was a matter of solving the problem “now or never” and that it “just can’t wait any longer.”
“When we think about the sustainability and inclusiveness of our country’s economy and society, we place support for raising children as our most important policy,” said the prime minister.
Kishida added that he wants the government to double its spending on child-related programs and that a new government agency will be set up in April to focus on the issue.
Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and the Ministry of Health predicts it will record fewer than 800,000 births in 2022 for the first time since records began in 1899.
The country also has one of the highest life expectancies in the world; in 2020, according to government data, nearly one in 1,500 people in Japan was 100 years old or older.
These trends have led to a growing demographic crisis, with a rapidly aging society, a shrinking workforce and not enough young people to fill the gaps in the stagnating economy.
Experts point to several factors behind the low birth rate. The country’s high cost of living, limited space and lack of childcare support in cities make it difficult to raise children, meaning fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are also often far from extended family who could help provide support.
Attitudes towards marriage and starting a family have also changed in recent years, with more couples putting both off during the pandemic.
Some point to the pessimism that young people in Japan harbor about the future, many frustrated by work pressure and economic stagnation.
Japan’s economy has stalled since the asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP growth slowed from 4.9% in 1990 to 0.3% in 2019. Meanwhile, average real annual household income fell from 6.59 million yen ($50,600) in 1995 to 5.64 million yen ($43,300) in 2020, according to 2021 data from the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
The government has launched several initiatives to address the population decline of recent decades, including new policies to improve childcare and improve housing for families with children. Some rural towns have even started paying couples living there to have children.
Demographic shifts are also a concern in other parts of East Asia.
South Korea recently broke its own record for the world’s lowest fertility rate, with data from November 2022 showing that a South Korean woman will have an average of 0.79 children in her lifetime – well below the 2.1 it takes to maintain a stable population. Japan’s fertility rate stands at 1.3, while the United States stands at 1.6.
Meanwhile, in 2022, China’s population shrank for the first time since the 1960s, adding to its misery as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. The last time the population fell was in 1961, during a famine that killed tens of millions across the country.