Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Will COVID-19 Further Drag Down Japan’s Dismal Birth Rate?

The coronavirus economic fallout adds new challenges to tackling Japan’s worrying fertility projections.

Thisanka Siripala
This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

Will COVID-19 Further Drag Down Japan’s Dismal Birth Rate?
Credit: Flickr/ Kevin Poh

Japan’s current population decline is only the beginning of its spiraling socioeconomic woes. Demographic projections highlight that, starting from 2021, population decline will shift into overdrive, accelerating exponentially year on year.

An Internal Affairs Ministry resident registry survey in January found that the country’s total population shrank by a record 500,000 compared to the previous year, which is the biggest drop since 1968. But Japan’s consecutive population decline is nothing new to demographers, who first forecasted the population would start shrinking after 2010 all the way back in 1979.

Japan’s bleak long-term total population projections are calculated in line with low, medium, and high fertility variants, with the medium estimate the most commonly referenced. Using that projection, by 2065 Japan’s population will plummet from 127 million to 88 million — but the low fertility variant indicates an even lower possibility of 82 million. What’s most alarming is the number of women of childbearing age in 2065 will be a meager 14 million — making up just 17 percent of the total population.

And now, the economic fall out of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty over how long it will last is further complicating young people’s plans to have children. Even before the outbreak, Japan’s economy had suffered from a period of stagnant growth. It has since slipped into a formal recession and, as the virus shows no signs of slowing, the country is on course to plunge deeper into economic crisis, aggravating financial burdens on young people and young households.

Still, Hisakazu Kato, a professor of economics at Meiji University, told The Diplomat that COVID-19’s impact would be unlikely to significantly worsen Japan’s demographic outlook. Given the long-term nature of the problem, Kato says the pandemic isn’t expected to have a significant impact Japan’s downward population trend, even if the outbreak persists for two to three years. “We can’t change population decline in the short term,” Kato pointed out. “It will take 50 to 60 years to change Japan’s fate.”

In the last decade, government efforts to support child rearing and boost the fertility rate toward the official birth rate target of 1.8 have made little progress in slowing the widening gap between births and deaths. In May the cabinet announced a new package of low fertility countermeasures featuring child care leave, expansion of child care support, and financial incentives for infertility treatments, but how the new programs will be financed is still unclear.

Japan’s poor finances limit the effectiveness and quality of child care and child rearing policy measures available to young people. Japan’s national debt level is two and a half times the size of its economy — the worst among OECD nations. While France and Sweden spend approximately 2 to 3 percent of GDP on family policies, Japan’s mountain of debt leaves room for only 1.3 percent to tackle low fertility. “If we spent more on helping young people with income to support children, then maybe the birth rate would improve but we can’t spend more on young families,” Kato said.

There’s also the added strain of supporting the growing number of retirees, whose electoral votes skew domestic policy in favor of aged care benefits, pulling funds away from young families under a “silver democracy.”

Yu Korekawa, the director of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo, said that responsibility doesn’t lie solely on the government. Policies used to prevent a population explosion in developing countries — such as one child or family planning policies — cannot be applied in the reverse case of raising women’s fertility.

COVID-19 could have one indirect benefit for Japan’s fertility crisis: By forcing a shift to more flexible work styles, more young Japanese could feel confident about raising a family. Kato argued that “work style reforms” could help change “the decision making behind having children.”

Japan’s rigid working style is characterized by face-to-face communication under one roof, where staff hired as fresh graduates are not accustomed to working unsupervised. Most traditional medium and large sized companies enshrine a hierarchy based on one’s age and length of recruitment regardless of skills, abilities, or competence. While companies have struggled to adapt to changing work styles, remote work has been touted as the key to unshackling outdated work practices and revolutionizing the way Japanese do business domestically and abroad.

Kato believes the way forward lies in the mobility and flexibility of teleworking. “It’s hard for outsiders to understand why Japanese office workers continue to commute to work during this coronavirus outbreak, but teleworking will change the importance of physically being in the office.” Kato anticipates work productivity to dip temporarily during the trial and error stage of remote work, but believes the popularity of teleworking will eventually see companies expand all levels of work, whether high or low skilled, to the home or elsewhere.

Korekawa, however, is uncertain whether teleworking will become a permanent fixture of workplaces within the next decade. He says the Japanese style of workplace collaboration is founded on a sense of community or family, which compels people to come together in person. This is a major obstacle to adopting teleworking in the long run, which has seen the telework rate fall after the state of emergency was lifted in May.

Lifetime employment in Japan has also come under fire in recent years for normalizing employee loyalty and discouraging an extended leave of absence, to the disadvantage of women who wish to have children. This outdated job-for-life system, although on the way out, clashes with the modern push for work-life balance and forces women to choose between having a child or a career.

Korekawa said that while workplace culture is not the root cause of low fertility, women tend to fall victim to a corporate ladder based on the length of service. Surveys show that women prefer to take time off and return to the labor force and pick up where they left off in their career after six to 10 years. Many women resort to low-skilled or part-time work in the absence of skilled or senior positions after an employment gap.