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Record low number of babies born in Japan

August 11, 2012 |  5:30 am

JapanbabiesFewer babies were born in Japan in the last year than any other on record, pulling down its population for the third year in a row, according to government statistics released this week.

As of the end of March, Japan had more than 260,000 fewer people than a year earlier, the biggest drop of   the Japanese population yet, according to Japanese media. 

The baby bust has continued year after year despite Japanese efforts to nudge up the numbers: The government has doled out payments for couples with children and subsidized daycare. Japanese towns publicly herald the number of local births in city signs. Engineering students even crafted a cooing robotic baby years ago in hope of setting biological clocks ticking.

Taking a more pointed tack, one professor recently created an online clock that ominously counts down until Japan has no children left -- a doomsday estimated to roll around in 3012.

“It is not received seriously, with urgency,” economics professor Hiroshi Yoshida of Tohoku University wrote as the clock was unveiled on Children’s Day in May.

SERIES: Beyond 7 billion

The Japanese are well aware of the problem, but birthrates continue to hover under 1.4 children per woman, far below the 2.1 needed to replace one generation with the next, said Noriko Tsuya, a Keio University statistician who leads a government committee on population. The number of marriage has  dropped, and bearing children out of wedlock is rare, Tsuya said.

Experts say women forced to choose between child and career in Japanese companies have increasingly opted against babies. Despite government efforts to foster gender equality, Japanese women are still expected to shoulder chores at home, researchers have repeatedly noted. Some companies pressure Japanese women to leave if they marry or have a baby, said John W. Traphagan, a University of Texas at Austin professor who has studied family dynamics in Japan.

Men seem to be losing interest in babymaking in the first place, with one government survey finding that more than a third of Japanese males ages 16 to 19 were uninterested in sex or even despised it; even more women said the same. The erosion of old guarantees of lifetime employment and the rise of temporary jobs are also damping the desire to start families.

“I don’t think young Japanese people want to stay single their whole lives,” Tsuya said. “But once you marry you’re supposed to have kids,”  a less appealing prospect without a steady job.

As the number of babies dwindles in Japan, the number of elderly is rising, thanks to some of the most impressive lifespans in the world. Japanese women were pushed from the top spot in global longevity only after the devastating tsunami of last year, which claimed thousands of elderly victims. Demographers predict that a third of Japanese will be older than 65 by the middle of the century.

The rapid graying of Japan imperils its social security system and could stunt its economy. So far, the country has whittled down social security benefits and raised taxes, but the pressure continues to mount as Japan grows older, said Robert Clark, an economics professor at North Carolina State University. The growing number of elderly suffering dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are also expected to put new pressure on institutions and families.

“The government is trying very hard but it’s very difficult to reverse this downward spiral of fertility,” Tsuya said. “What can you do? You’re not going to kill the healthy elderly. You’re not going to force people to have more kids. You could bring in people from the outside,  but Japan is not a country that brings in a lot of people from outside.”

Other countries with low birthrates have made up for their losses by welcoming immigrants, but Japan has been reluctant to do so. The big question, Traphagan said, is whether the shrinking population will push Japan to overcome that reluctance.

“It doesn’t seem like fertility is going to address the problem,” he said.


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Photo: Young mothers chat as they leave Aiiku Hospital in Tokyo. Credit: Toru Yamanaka / AFP/Getty Images