Where does Japan’s declining birthrate go?

Not long ago, the newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga proposed that in order to solve the problem of declining birthrates, Japan plans to include infertility treatment in its medical insurance in 2022. By then, 600 hospitals that provide artificial insemination will become service targets across Japan. In addition, in order to reduce the burden on patients’ families as soon as possible, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare also plans to increase the amount of subsidies for related treatments in April 2021. In Japan, infertility treatment is nothing new. However, the cost of this operation is relatively expensive, which discourages many people, and some government subsidies in various places are almost in vain. Including infertility into medical insurance will greatly reduce the burden on families who want to receive treatment.

The intensifying process of declining birthrates
The term “fewer births” was born in Japan in the 1990s. In the past 30 years, the increasing declining birthrate has become one of the biggest problems in Japan’s economic and social development. It is not only related to the sustainability of social security systems such as pensions, medical care, and nursing care, but also affects Japan’s entire social structure and future. Industrial competition and personnel training have brought many negative effects. In response to this, the Japanese government has successively issued a number of countermeasures. Whether it is expanding childcare services, increasing female parental leave, or the newly launched early childhood education free childcare system in October 2019, they all hope to build a peace of mind for everyone. A socially supportive parenting environment for fertility. The plan to include infertility in medical insurance is also hoping to help families who want to give birth but are unable to give birth, thereby increasing the birth rate of newborns across the country. In such a detailed breakdown, the Japanese government has taken great pains to solve the problem of declining birthrates. 2019 is the first year of Japan’s Reiwa. Many people hope that this special atmosphere will bring about a small baby boom, but the bleak fertility data seems to raise questions to society again: How to break the dilemma of declining birthrate?

According to data released by the Bureau of Statistics of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications of Japan on November 20, 2020, as of November 1, 2020, the total population of Japan was approximately 125.77 million, a decrease of approximately 390,000 compared with the same period last year, and a negative growth for 11 consecutive years. In late July this year, the term “860,000 shocks” caused heated discussions in the media and social platforms. Specifically, the number of births in Japan fell to 865,000 in 2019, a record low since statistics are available. In addition, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan conducted a statistical analysis of the relevant values ​​of pregnancy declarations from January to July 2020: the number of pregnancy declarations received in various regions during this period was 513,800, a year-on-year decrease of 5.1%. Especially the pregnancy declaration rate after May is low. Some experts believe that families will deliberately control pregnancy when facing uncertain social risks in the future. This shows that the new crown epidemic has accelerated the process of declining birthrate to a certain extent.

Responding to the evolution of the low birth rate policy
Japan’s policy system to deal with declining birthrates has gradually formed through continuous practice and accumulation, and has a clear legislative foundation and a complete policy response system. From the perspective of Japan’s policy evolution process in response to declining birthrates, it is mainly concentrated in two aspects. On the one hand, financially ease the pressure on parenting families, such as providing child subsidies, reducing or exempting childcare or kindergarten tuition. As early as 1971, Japan promulgated the “Children’s Allowance Law”, which grants a certain amount of subsidy to each child whose family income is below the standard. Since then, the government has continuously revised the law, relaxing the conditions for receiving subsidies and the length of time for applying for subsidies. In addition, the free early childhood education system will be promoted in stages. After the Abe government was re-elected in October 2017, it immediately passed the 2 trillion yen “education revolution” plan. The free preschool education is also an important policy pillar. On the other hand, build an inclusive and supportive social environment from multiple perspectives. Specifically, it includes enriching childcare services for infants and young children, and trying its best to solve the problem of “standby children” (referring to school-age children who need to enter the kindergarten but cannot enter due to full facilities or insufficient staff and can only wait in line at home for vacancies); stabilize employment and reduce youth People’s economic burden; promote the reform of working methods, and increase the social environment for women to “work and family are both right.” From the “Angel Project” in 1994 to the “New Angel Project” in 1999, to the “Guidelines for Supporting Work and Parenting, etc.” in 2001; The Basic Law of Social Measures to the “New Countermeasures for Declining Births” in 2006; from the “New Child and Parenting Assistance System” in 2015 to the “Japan’s 100 Million Total Active Plan” in 2016, and the “Work Style Reform Implementation” in 2017 The Plan, the New Economic Policy Package, and the Work Style Reform Act of 2018, the Japanese government has spared no effort in dealing with the issue of declining birthrates, and has done everything in it.

In addition, Japan held intensive discussions on countermeasures against declining birthrates at the All-Generation Social Security Seminar to be held in mid-October 2020. It was proposed at the meeting that in order to actively respond to declining birthrates, in addition to promoting the inclusion of infertility in medical insurance, it also included the early elimination of “standby children” and protection of male parental leave. It can be said that the various countermeasures launched by the Japanese government to solve the problem of declining birthrates have actually formed a three-dimensional and multi-dimensional policy system. However, under such a comprehensive and meticulous response policy, the effect of the policy is minimal, and the birth rate continues to show a downward trend.

A traditional wedding held at Meiji Shrine. Entering a “marriage-difficult society” is an important reason for Japan’s declining birthrate.

The real cause of declining birthrate
The question is whether the policy of incorporating infertility into medical insurance is an important part of the countermeasures against declining birthrates.

In fact, most of Japan’s countermeasures to declining birthrates so far have been aimed at married families, and efforts have been made to build a social support environment suitable for married families to give birth. However, in addition to the “married dare not give birth” group, unmarried or even unmarried people are increasing. Some sociologists have pointed out that in today’s Japanese society, even though it is still stuck in the understanding of “marriage is essential” from the system level and people’s level of consciousness, in fact Japan has already entered a “marriage-difficult society”, and this is the point. It is also an important reason for the declining birthrate. According to the 2015 National Survey of Japan, the unmarried rate of men between 30 and 35 years old was 47.1%, and that of women was 34.6%; in 1975, the unmarried rate of men in this age group was only 14.3% and that of women was 7.7%. Japan’s National Institute of Social Security and Population Issues released survey data on the “lifetime unmarried rate” in April 2017, showing that the percentage of Japanese men who had never been married before the age of 50 in 2015 was about 23.4%, and the percentage of women was about 14.1 %, an average increase of 3 percentage points over 2010, a record high. At the same time, data shows that the “lifetime unmarried rate” of Japanese will continue to rise. By 2035, the “lifetime unmarried rate” of Japanese men will be close to 30%, and women will be close to 20%. “Super single country” is becoming Japan’s new “label”. Judging from the data and actual development, the reason for the increase in the unmarried rate is not the “late marriage” that many people think, but the increase in the number of “non-married”. The direct consequence is to accelerate the process of “declining birthrate”. Without resolving the marriage issues faced by “unmarried” people, the various policies that have been introduced on the issue of declining birthrate seem to be scratching the surface.

So why is there an increase in unmarried people? A number of survey results show that very few women really do not want to get married, most of which are because they “have been unable to find a suitable good man and do not want to get married.” The 1960s and 1980s were the golden period of rapid economic development in Japan. Stable jobs and generous benefits seemed to be the standard for every young person’s work. At that time, it was easier for young people to find someone who met their mate selection criteria as a partner. . However, after the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the Japanese economy fell into a downturn and entered the “lost 20 years” or even longer. More and more companies hired casual workers, day laborers and other informal employees. While informal employees cannot have the same salary and treatment as regular employees, low income and instability have become one of their labels. Under such changes in the social environment, competition for employment has become increasingly fierce, and more and more young people have to choose informal but flexible jobs with a high degree of freedom to maintain their basic needs in life. For them, love and marriage seem to have become a burden, and childbirth is an unattainable bubble.

At the Congress meeting on October 26, there was a heated discussion about the countermeasures against the declining birthrate in the future. In fact, compared to future policies that will focus on including infertility in medical insurance and guaranteeing the access to male parental leave, it is better to think about focusing on constructing positive employment countermeasures. For young people whose work and life are still unstable and can’t see hope, getting married and having children is indeed a luxury. Building a social environment where everyone can work with peace of mind and take care of childcare is the key to overcoming the problem of declining birthrates.