Japan’s prime minister issued a dire warning about the country’s population crisis on Monday, saying it was “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions” due to the falling birth rate.
In a policy address to lawmakers, Fumio Kishida said it was a case of solving the issue “now or never,” and that it “simply cannot wait any longer.”
“In thinking of the sustainability and inclusiveness of our nation’s economy and society, we place child-rearing support as 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 would be set up 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 record 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 were age 100 or older, according to government data.
These trends have driven a growing demographic crisis, with a rapidly aging society, a shrinking workforce and not enough young people to fill the gaps in the stagnating economy.
Experts point to several factors behind the low birth rate. The country’s high cost of living, limited space and lack of child care support in cities make it difficult to raise children, meaning fewer couples are having children. Urban couples are also often far from extended family who could help provide support.
Attitudes towards marriage and starting families have also shifted in recent years, with more couples putting off both during the pandemic.
Some point to the pessimism young people in Japan hold towards the future, many frustrated with work pressure and economic stagnation.
Japan’s economy has stalled since its 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 declined from 6.59 million yen ($50,600) in 1995 to 5.64 million yen ($43,300) in 2020, according to 2021 data from the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
The government has launched various initiatives to address the population decline over the past few decades, including new policies to enhance child care services and improve housing facilities for families with children. Some rural towns have even started paying couples who live there to have children.
Shifting demographics are a concern across other parts of East Asia, too.
South Korea recently broke its own record for the world’s lowest fertility rate, with data from November 2022 showing 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. Japan’s fertility rate stands at 1.3, while the United States is at 1.6.
Meanwhile, China’s population will shrink 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.