On Jan. 4 during his New Year’s press conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to implement measures to increase Japan’s low birth rate. In 2022, the number of babies born in Japan went below 800,000 for the first time, and Kishida said that the “problem” cannot be “neglected any longer.” Most of the countermeasures he mentioned are economical in nature: reinforce or increase the child allowance, provide after-school childcare services, give more government support for ailing children and post-natal care for mothers, and promote a more amenable work-life balance for working women who have children (no mention was made of doing the same for working men with children).
Though Kishida tried to make it sound as if these steps were “bold” and “unprecedented” (“ijigen,” an odd word that literally means “of a different dimension”), they really aren’t. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike also recently announced she would approve an extra monthly allowance for children. When the government has tried to do something in the past to raise the birth rate, which has been low since the 1980s (though not as low as it presently is in other East Asian countries and Taiwan), they’ve thrown money at the problem, which sounds logical since many couples have said they can’t afford children or can’t afford more children. But so far nothing has made a difference, so throwing money more “boldly” at the problem probably won’t make a difference, either.
Kazuhisa Arakawa, a self-styled “researcher into unmarried people,” wrote an article recently for Yahoo News about the low birth rate and the government’s intentions to address it, and he doesn’t believe it’s going to be successful. One of the reasons people think the government should invest more in measures to increase the birth rate is the fact that, compared to other developed countries, Japan spends little on matters associated with children. According to an OECD survey conducted in 2017, the portion of GDP that Japan spends on children is 1.59 percent, while Sweden’s portion is 3.4 percent, Norway’s 3.24 percent, Finland’s 2.87 percent, France’s 2.88 percent, and Germany’s 2.33 percent. It is Japan’s low showing in outlay for children that has spurred people in the government to see this gap with other countries as having something to do with the low birth rate.
However, Arakawa says that if you look carefully at all these other countries who spend more of their GDP on children, you notice that their birth rates aren’t much higher than Japan’s. In other words, there is no correlation: Europe’s higher spending for children has nothing to do with the birth rate anyway. The purpose of that money is to help existing children, especially those who are at risk or living in poverty. Then there’s the U.S., which spends even less of its GDP on children than Japan—0.63 percent—but whose birth rate is considerably higher that Japan’s and all Scandinavian countries except Sweden, owing mainly to immigrants. Moreover, Japan’s spending for children has actually increased over the years. It was only 0.46 percent of GDP in 1980 and by 2019 it had increased to 1.73 percent. And yet during this same period, the birth rate dropped. In particular, the budget for children’s issues increased considerably after 2015 while the birth rate also dropped after rising slightly over the previous decade. Coincidence or causation?
France is an apt example for Japan. At one time, France was looked upon as the country with the healthiest birth rate in Europe, but while the budget for child-related services has hovered around 3.0 percent of GDP since 1980, the birth rate in France has actually gone down. Again, France does not spend money on children for the express purpose of raising the birth rate, so it isn’t as if their children’s budget is a failure, but there is no evidence that Japan will see a rise in births if they just spend more money to help families raise children.
As of 2019, Japan’s birth rate was 1.36, which means a woman of childbearing age in Japan would be expected to have, on average, 1.36 children during her lifetime. Conventional thinking is such that a country’s birth rate should be around 2.0 to maintain its population. However, if you compare the number of marriages (including those that end in divorce) with the number of births, a marriage in Japan produces 1.55 children, so increasing marriages is a better means of increasing the birth rate. If the government really wants to have more babies, it should divert some of the money it proposes spending on children toward helping young people who want to get married fulfill their dreams while they are still young. As it stands, many young people say they have to wait to get married for various reasons, some of which have to do with money.
But there is an even more intractable problem. The birth rate hasn’t really changed substantially since 1980 if we look at the population in general. The low birth rate, after all, does not mean the number of children being born is too small, but rather that the number of women of child-bearing age is decreasing, and among them the number who are not married or have no intention of getting married is increasing. There is also an increase in the number of what Arakawa called “marginalized” young men, which means they have little to no chance of getting married for one reason or another. These social aspects have much more to do with the low birth rate than economics.
One possible answer would be to destigmatize unmarried parenthood. However, there is another, more basic aspect that Arakawa does not address, and that is the question of whether people who can have children actually want them. Kishida’s proposals for increasing the birth rate is predicated on the belief that a substantially larger number of women want to have children than are having them now. But is that really the case? In an essay she wrote for the Oct. 2022 issue of Harper’s, Charlotte Shane asserted that half the pregnancies in the world are unintended. Though she doesn’t cite a source for this statistic, it’s easy to believe. Prior to widely available birth control and other medical advances, women became pregnant and gave birth as a matter of course, and it had nothing to do with their will. As more and more people have access to birth control, which includes safe abortions, more and more of them will opt to not have children.
Shane’s point, made in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which allowed abortions, is that a person has a right “to not be pregnant.” In that regard, the low birth rate is a natural and predictable result of progress in the sense that an individual’s right to self-determination should be honored and protected. Kishida and the authoritarian, patriarchal mindset he represents has it backwards. Rather than thinking up ways to increase the birth rate, he should be pondering how to maintain Japan’s prosperity with a population that is getting smaller, because that is what’s happening and nothing will reverse it.