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770,747 Babies And (Barely) Counting – Why Japan Is Struggling So Much With Falling Birth Rates

The world’s third largest economy will see its population shrink by 40 million people by 2060. Among the root causes: millions of men in precarious employment, excluded from the marriage market, and work pressures that weigh heavily on families.

Man holding a baby crying.

A baby takes part in ''baby-cry sumo'' competition at Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, Japan

Yann Rousseau

TOKYO — It’s the last chance. It’s almost time for the last train back to the suburbs. Disinhibited by drinks at an “izakaya” in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district offering “nomihodai” (all-you-can-drink), young employees, still wearing dark suits but with their ties undone, try the old techniques of “nampa," street flirting. One runs after a young girl with a packet of aperitif crackers in hand, assuring her that she has just dropped it. She apologizes, explaining that it’s not hers. “Let’s go and eat together over a drink then," attempts the bold, almost desperate young man.

It’s so complicated to find a partner in Japan, to get married and, maybe, one day, to have a child. A true obstacle course. “Twenty six per cent of Japanese men aged 50 have never been married. The rate is 16.4% for women. And it’s rising,” says Seiko Noda, former Minister for Children’s Policies, at a seminar with the foreign press in Tokyo. “And since we don’t traditionally have children outside of marriage, the decline in the number of marriages has led to a fall in the number of births since 1973,” she explains.

800,000 inhabitants lost in 2022

Last year, the country celebrated just over 500,000 marriages, compared with 1 million marriages 30 years ago. Only 770,747 babies were born, while the number of deaths in an increasingly elderly population of 126 million rose to 1.57 million. Last year, the country lost another 800,000 inhabitants. Soon, it will shrink by a million a year, to 86 million by 2060.

Still, young people are trying. “There are still a few places to flirt in Tokyo, especially between Shimbashi and Yurakucho, but now most dating is done online, on all the dedicated apps,” explains Vanessa Montalbano. She has just recounted her own adventure in the Japanese world of romantic relationships in the fascinating Tokyo Crush. “There are apps for all genders, all desires, but everything is extremely codified,” says the young French woman, a translator for a video game studio.

The importance of blood type

Surf the profiles and beware of “amaenbo” men, who claim to have great emotional needs. Beware of “roru kyabetsu” (stuffed cabbage), who present themselves as “herbivores," harmless and asexual, but will unveil a “carnivorous” personality. Don’t forget to specify your blood type. It matters in Japan. In the collective unconscious, each group carries specific personality traits.

There are rules for the perfect partner.

“A” is hard-working and polite. “B” is outgoing but a bit selfish. “AB”? A poor, misunderstood dreamer. “There are rules for the perfect partner,” says Chisato, 24, an employee of a large multinational in Tokyo. “Before, when the economy was doing well, girls talked about the 3Ko — for koshincho (tall), kogakureki (great studies) and koshunyu (big income) — now, we’re looking more for the 4T — for teishisei (humble), teirisuku (stable jobs), teinenpi (thrifty) and teiizon (able to live without depending on his wife or mother).” Romance is not on the list.

Above all, young Japanese women are running away from suitors in professions deemed economically unstable or without a permanent contract. There are now 7 million of them working in “non-regular," low-paid and poorly protected jobs — men who are no longer worth anything on the ultra-competitive love market. “Japan is a country of strong social norms. There are a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’,” says Mary Brinton, professor at Harvard University who has just published a book in Japanese on the demographic crisis in the world’s third economic power.

Family walking across a crosswalk.

A Tokyoite family walking with their children and a stroller across a crosswalk in the autumn evening at Ueno Park, in Tokyo.

Taidgh Barron/ZUMA

No career, no marriage

“A man is still expected to bring economic stability to his household. It’s a key condition to get married,” she says. “The greater part of Japanese people who, today, aren’t in a relationship and say they are not interested in looking for a partner are men with low income and an unstable job,” says sociologist Haruka Sakamoto from the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

No career, no marriage. No marriage, no children — it would be frowned upon by parents, cousins, neighbors and the still very conservative society. “We’ve changed the laws so that children born from unmarried parents don’t get discriminated against by institutions or different policies, but the change hasn’t yet taken place in people’s minds,” deplores Seiko Noda. In the archipelago, 2% of births take place outside marriage. In France, it’s 60%.

It’s now our last chance to try and reverse the decline of our fertility rate.

To compensate for the decline in the number of marriages and turn around a birth rate that has fallen to 1.26 children per woman, the authorities are trying to convince newlyweds to have more babies. “The country is on the brink of social dysfunction,” warned the conservative Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the beginning of the year. He promises to stabilize the entire state to halt the demographic decline that is destabilizing whole swaths of the Japanese economy, stifling growth and unbalancing public finances.

Lack of workers

Unemployment has been non-existent for years, and all industries are starting to run out of workers. Factories, hospitals, retirement homes, construction, logistics, stores, hotels, restaurants, event schools, with an average of 500 closing each year for lack of children.

The army has also sounded the alarm. Last year, the Japanese self-defense forces only managed to recruit half the number of people they needed to hope to protect the country properly. Worried, the command is considering recruiting cadets with tattoos, whose applications were so far automatically rejected. An opportunity, maybe, to enroll a few dozen more soldiers. “It’s now our last chance to try and reverse the decline of our fertility rate in the 2030s,” said Fumio Kishida in June.

A family posing for a picture.

A family poses for a picture in Dotonbori, a vibrant commercial, tourist and nightlife district.

Taidgh Barron/ZUMA

Increasing benefits

Like all his predecessors, he wants to believe that yet another increase in the monthly allowances paid to parents of children below 18 will work. He promises to double the overall budget for childcare policies over the next ten years. The budget currently stands at 4.7 trillion yen a year, or €30 billion. “This allowance strategy doesn’t work,” says Mary Brinton. “No developed country has succeeded in encouraging families to have one more child by increasing benefits,” she insists. “South Korea has been trying this strategy for decades and it now has the lowest fertility rate in the world,” says Haruka Sakamoto. Last year, the number of children per woman fell to 0.78 in Korea.

Even the Japanese population has its doubts about the executive’s plan. In a recent survey, 73% of those questioned said they didn’t believe in the efficiency of the executive’s measures. Pointing to the gigantic size of the public debt (260% of the GDP), they also question its funding. Very evasive on the subject, Fumio Kishida simply promised that it would not lead to tax hikes. “You have to understand that it’s a very delicate subject,” says Seiko Noda. “We’re risking a dispute between those who have children and those who don’t,” she points out.

In the absence of births for decades, only 18% of all tax households in Japan are home to at least one child under 18. And more than one in three households consists of a single person. Unprecedented in the history of the archipelago. “But for the Japanese government, increasing benefits remains the simplest solution, because it avoids tackling the roots of the problem of the falling birth rate,” says Haruka Sakamoto.

No mention is made of those excluded from the marriage market, nor of the social pressure that weighs on families. Fathers with permanent contract are still putting in dozens of hours of overtime in the office, must comply with transfer order anywhere in the country and are afraid to take their parental leave, even though it is provided for by law.

“During our interviews with young parents, both men and women say that fathers don’t take parental leave because it would be frowned upon by superiors, because colleagues would have to work more and it would reduce the household income,” says Mary Brinton. “Japanese society still expects women to stop their career to look after their children. Most of these obstacles come from this particular world of work,” she sums up, before pointing out Japan’s catastrophic gender parity scores.

Pierced condoms

This year, the country fell to 125th out of 146 nations surveyed by the World Economic Forum. “A lot of young Japanese women throw in the towel and choose to stay on their own. We’re talking here about himono onna — "dried fish women." They don’t want to be the women society expects them to be anymore,” says Vanessa Montalbano. Gradually, solo living is becoming the new norm.

The few women in power share this pessimism. “All these family policies are made by men who don’t take care of children,” laments the former minister, now a member of parliament in an assembly where 90% of the seats are held by men, in a succession of mandates. They still have a very patriarchal interpretation of the issues at stake and struggle to understand changing mores.

Some even indulge in the wildest proposals. Like this elected official of the city of Shinshiro who suggested, a few years ago, that the municipality should distribute pierced condoms to the city’s couples to make them have children. “It’s hard,” says Seiko Noda. “It might take 100 years to stop the country’s demographic decline. But some things have to change and we have to try for the future generations.”

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