Japan’s prime minister issued a dire warning about the country’s population crisis on Monday, saying it was “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions” due to the falling birth rate.
In a policy speech to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said it was about solving the problem “now or never” and “it just can’t wait any longer.”
“As we think about the sustainability and inclusiveness of our nation’s economy and society, we place support for parenting as our most important policy,” the prime minister said.
Kishida added that he wants the government to double its spending on child-related programs and that a new government agency to focus on the issue will be established in April.
Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and the Ministry of Health predicts it will register 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, nearly one in 1,500 people in Japan was 100 or older, according to government data.
These trends have caused a growing demographic crisis, with a rapidly aging society, a shrinking workforce, and insufficient numbers of young people to fill the gaps in a stagnant 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 parenting difficult, meaning fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are also often away from extended family who could help provide support.
Attitudes toward marriage and starting families have also changed in recent years, with more couples putting both off during the pandemic.
Some point to the pessimism young people in Japan have for the future, many frustrated by work pressure and economic stagnation.
Japan’s economy has stagnated since its asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. The country’s GDP growth slowed from 4.9% in 1990 to 0.3% in 2019, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, the average real annual household income decreased from 6.59 million yen ($50,600) in 1995 to 5.64 million yen ($43,300) in 2020, according to 2021 data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of the country.
The government has launched several initiatives to address population decline in recent decades, including new policies to improve childcare services and improve housing facilities for families with children. Some rural towns have even started paying couples who live there to have children.
Demographic changes 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 2. ,1 needed to maintain a stable population. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.3, while the United States’ is 1.6.
Meanwhile, China’s population shrank in 2022 for the first time since the 1960s, adding to its woes as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. The last time its population fell was in 1961, during a famine that killed tens of millions across the country.