The Fertility Crisis Started in Japan, But It Won’t Stay There

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The world is obsessed with Japan’s shrinking population. Every year, news that the country is a little smaller can reliably be evoked for column inches, which tend to examine it as a Japanese mystery – one of those inherently Eastern concepts that foreigners cannot possibly penetrate, like 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 Japanese have so few babies”. To be fair, Japan is talking about the population crisis as much as anyone, with one newspaper recently calling for the declaration of a “falling birth rate emergency.”

The proposal has echoes of the “climate emergency” legislation passed by governments such as the UK to raise awareness of global warming. But Japan is to the fertility crisis what low-lying Pacific islands are to the environmental crisis: just an early sign of the same problems emerging everywhere else.

Japan first took serious notice of its declining births in 1989, in an event known as the “1.57 shock” – the total fertility rate (TFR) recorded that year was even lower 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 was arrested, Japan could do almost nothing to increase it significantly. A record low of 1.26 was recorded in 2005, rising to 1.3 in 2021 – and although affected by the pandemic, it has not been above 1.5 in more than three decades.

Japan is often convinced that its economic malaise since the 1980s is the root of its ills, but that connection seems less than clear. Births fell throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the “1.57 shock” coming at the height of its economic power. If anything, there appears to be an inverse relationship between wealth and fertility: Okinawa, the country’s poorest region, consistently has the highest rate, with rich Tokyo the lowest. The experience of other countries also suggests otherwise, with wealthy Singapore at an even lower rate than Japan. Almost every country in Europe is below the 2.1 level needed to maintain population, with countries including Croatia, Portugal and Greece all set to lose similar levels to Japan over the next three decades.

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

This is a variation on the Anna Karenina principle: All fertile societies are alike; every barren society is barren in its own way.

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

Yet many of these problems are no longer as chronic as they once were—and alleviating them has had little impact on fertility. Average overtime hours have halved in less than 10 years, according to one report. The number of children on kindergarten waiting lists has fallen, down nearly 80% in 2021 from 2017, even as the female labor force participation rate has risen.

What about Japan’s low gender equality? If anything, women’s increasing role outside the home in recent decades is one factor contributing to the decline, allowing women to delay marriage or not marry at all, according to one report. Nearby Taiwan bills itself as the most gender-equal society in Asia, but has a TFR rate of just 1.08 — the worst in the world, according to one estimate.

“Japan may have its own idiosyncrasies, but given the very large number of countries with persistently low fertility, each achieving low fertility in its own way, it would be difficult to single out anything in particular,” Myrskyla said. He points to European countries such as Italy, Germany, Finland and Hungary, where gender norms and public support for working mothers vary widely, but the TFR is consistently low.

Myrskyla suggests “adjustment” is probably a better policy response than Japan’s 30 years of trying to raise births – investing in education, keeping people in work longer and integrating women and immigrants to fill out the workforce. In recent years, Japan’s policy mix has also gradually begun to focus not on changing people’s minds about marriage or children, but on helping those who lack opportunities – holding 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 a low TFR is that they tend to be rich, even if rich countries do not necessarily have below-replacement levels. Although Japan worries about how rich it really is, it is still a very rich nation in per-capita GDP terms. Many are surprised to learn that the US has a persistently low fertility rate of just 1.66. A Japanese proverb describes a problem that is someone else’s issue as a “fire on the other side of the river”. In terms of population, Japan’s struggles are anything but.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

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

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

• India may have the world’s biggest people problem: Mihir Sharma

(1) Worryingly, the next year, known as hinue-uma, will occur in 2026.

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

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

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