Japan’s prime minister issued a dire warning about the country’s demographic crisis on Monday, saying it was “on the verge of not being able to maintain social functions” due to a declining birth rate.
In a policy address to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said it was a case of solving the problem “now or never” and that he “simply cannot wait any longer.”
“Thinking about the sustainability and inclusiveness of our nation’s economy and society, we make supporting childcare 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 will be created in April to focus on the issue.
Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, with the Ministry of Health predicting 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 aged 100 or older, according to government data.
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 a stagnant economy.
Experts point to several factors for the low birth rate. The country’s high cost of living, limited space and a lack of childcare support in cities make raising children difficult, meaning fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are also often far from extended family that could help provide support.
Attitudes towards marriage and starting families have also changed in recent years, with more couples postponing both during the pandemic.
Some point to the pessimism of Japan’s young people about the future, many frustrated by work pressures and economic stagnation.
Japan’s economy has been stagnant since the 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 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 Ministry of Health , labor and social welfare of the country.
The government has launched various initiatives to address population decline over the past few decades, including new policies to improve childcare services and improve housing conditions for families with children. Some rural towns have even started paying couples who live there to have children.
Changing demographics are also a problem in other parts of East Asia.
South Korea recently broke its own record for the lowest birth rate in the world, with figures from November 2022 showing that a South Korean woman will have an average of 0.79 children in her lifetime – far below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. The birth rate in Japan is 1.3, while in the United States it 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 of people across the country.