While the wrangling over the relocation of the Futenma Air Station is the issue that hogged the spotlight for much of Yukio Hatoyama’s nine months as prime minister, Japanese politicians face a much more serious challenge to their country’s future—how to stop its citizens disappearing.
Japan has among the lowest birth rates in the world, and by some estimates about 40 percent of its population will be over 65 by 2050. Worse, its population is expected to contract from about 127 million now, to less than 90 million by 2055.
The Diplomat asked Kenji Suzuki of the School of Global Japanese Studies at Tokyo’s Meiji University for his take on the issue and the reasons behind Japan’s falling birth rate. The main reason is one familiar to many countries—many couples are settling down into married life later, if at all. This, combined with what Suzuki described as ‘uncomfortable’ working conditions for women with small children, has bought Japan’s fertility rate down to a low of 1.26 in 2005, far less than the 2.1 needed to keep the population stable.
The financial implications of this are clear, with a contracting working age population increasingly less able to support retirees and the country’s pension system. As was noted by Forbes last month, the ratio of workers to dependents fell to 1.8 this year, and is projected to fall to crippling parity after 2050.
So what did the Liberal Democratic Party, in power for more than five virtually uninterrupted decades, do to address the issue?
‘The LDP government in its last years tried to show its eagerness to tackle the problem by appointing special ministers for the birth rate,’ Suzuki said. ‘However, the allocation of financial resources for welfare spending has been heavily biased toward the elderly, who are the most important social group in terms of voter turnout.’
The Democratic Party of Japan pledged in its lower house election manifesto ahead of last year’s trouncing of the LDP to arrest the country’s falling birth rate. But Suzuki said that although the party has proposed various reforms to counteract the low birth rate, he found it ‘disappointing’ that the appointment of the special minister for falling birth rate was apparently decided very late on ‘because no one was interested in the position’.
Asked what he would like to see the government do next, Suzuki said first he’d like to see the DPJ follow through on its current efforts to integrate nurseries and kindergartens.‘Traditionally, they’ve been two different things, and there have been long waiting lists for nurseries,while many kindergartens have been closing. But kindergartens are generally open for shorter hours that don’t fit with mothers’ needs,’ he said.
Such difficulties have been one of the reasons working mothers have been reluctant to have children. But Suzuki added that although the LDP was unable to tackle the issue due to the rivalry between the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, which supervises nurseries, and the Ministry of Education, which supervises kindergarten, the DPJ looks like it will be able to resolve the issue.
Discussion of the consumption tax may be the issue that has grabbed the headlines the past couple of weeks, but unless Japan can address its contracting population, the debate over how high to hike the consumption tax rate will seem like a storm in a very small teacup.