The fertility crisis started in Japan, but it won’t stay there

The fertility crisis started in Japan, but it won’t stay there

The fertility crisis started in Japan, but it won’t stay there

Placeholder while article actions are loading

The world is obsessed with Japan’s shrinking population. Every year, news can be reliably relied upon that the country is a little smaller, for column inches, who often view it as a Japanese mystery—one of those inherently oriental concepts that foreigners cannot possibly penetrate, such as wabi-sabi or the bushido code of samurai warriors.

The New York Times asked in 2012, “Can Japan survive without babies?” The Atlantic wrote of “the mystery of why the Japanese have so few babies.” To be fair, Japan talks about the population crisis as much as anyone, with one newspaper recently calling for a “decreasing birth rate emergency” to be declared.

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

Japan first took serious notice of declining births in 1989, during an event known as the “1.57 Shock” — the total fertility rate (TFR) recorded that year, less than the 1.58 of 1966. , when couples avoided having children to superstition about an unfavorable event(1) in the Chinese zodiac.

Despite three decades of task forces, government support programs and ministers responsible for the issue, little has changed. Although the decline in the birth rate has stopped, Japan has been able to do almost nothing to increase it significantly. A record low of 1.26 was recorded in 2005, rising to 1.3 in 2021, and while that’s impacted by the pandemic, it hasn’t gone above 1.5 in more than three decades.

Japan is often convinced that its economic slump since the 1980s is the root of its ills, but that link seems less than clear. Birth rates declined in the 1970s and 1980s, with the “1.57 Shock” coming to the peak of its economic power. There even seems to be an inverse relationship between wealth and fertility: Okinawa, the poorest region in the country, consistently has the highest percentage, with wealthy Tokyo the lowest. The experience of other countries also shows otherwise, with wealthy Singapore even lower than Japan. Nearly every country in Europe is below the 2.1 level needed to maintain its population, and countries like Croatia, Portugal and Greece will all lose the same level as Japan over the next three decades.

“Economic conditions aren’t as helpful in explaining ongoing trends,” explains Mikko Myrskyla, director of the Rostock, Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. “Scientists are somewhat helpless in explaining what then drives the change in the long run.”

It is a variation of the Anna Karenina principle: all fertile societies are the same; every barren society is barren in its own way.

While Western media was once obsessed with how little sex the Japanese might have, the same phenomenon is now being observed around the world. Are there perhaps other unique social circumstances? Seen through a Western lens, some of Japan’s problems may seem obvious: a notorious culture of overwork or preschool 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. According to a report, the average number of overtime hours has halved in less than 10 years. The number of children on kindergarten waiting lists has fallen, falling by almost 80% in 2021 compared to 2017, while the employment rate of women has increased.

What about low gender equality in Japan? According to a report, the increasing role of women outside the home in recent decades is one of the factors that has contributed to the decline, which can leave women delaying marriage or not marrying at all. Nearby Taiwan touts itself as the most gender-equal society in Asia, but has a TFR rate of just 1.08 — the worst in the world, by one estimate.

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

Myrskyla suggests that “adaptation” is likely a better policy response than Japan’s 30 years of trying to increase births — investing in education, keeping people in work longer, and integrating women and immigrants to replenish the workforce. In recent years, Japan’s policy mix has also gradually come to focus more, not on changing people’s minds about marriage or children, but on helping those who lack opportunities – holding events for rural communities to identify potential partners. or the recent addition to health insurance of expensive IVF treatments.

Perhaps the only thing that unites countries with a low TFR is that they are generally prosperous, even if rich countries don’t necessarily have lower replacement levels. Although Japan is concerned about how rich it really is, it is still a very wealthy nation in terms of GDP per capita. 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 affects someone else as a ‘fire on the other side of the river’. When it comes to population, Japan’s struggle is anything but.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Workers in Japan should ask for a raise: Geroid Reidy

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

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

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

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

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

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion