TOKYO — Annual births in Japan are on track to drop below 1 million for the first time on record this year, casting into sharp relief an increasingly serious problem exacerbated by demographic and economic factors.
Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey results to be released soon are expected to peg total births at between 980,000 and 990,000, down from just over 1 million last year and the lowest-ever figure in data going back to 1899. Published data shows 990,000 births in the 12 months through July — less than 40% of the record set in 1949 during Japan’s postwar baby boom.
Much of the decline owes to a drop in the number of women in their 20s and 30s, who numbered about 13.66 million in October, down 20% from a decade earlier.
The total fertility rate, or the average number of children born to a woman who lives through her childbearing years if current trends continue, rose 0.03 point to 1.45 in 2015 thanks to such factors as an economic upturn. Though this represents an improvement over 2005’s record low of 1.26, it remains too low to compensate for the dwindling number of women. A rate of 2.07 is needed to maintain Japan’s population at current levels.
Marriages fell 0.7% on the year to 368,220 for the January-July period. The average age at first marriage has been trending higher, reaching 31.1 for men and 29.4 for women in 2015. Later marriages tend to mean later first births as well as fewer households with two or more children.
The aging of the second baby boom generation — those born between 1971 and 1974 — is another factor. Part of this cohort has turned 45, an age at which the number of births takes a sharp downward turn.
Japan’s population is also set for a 10th straight year of natural decline this year, with deaths likely to outnumber births. The drop could reach a postwar high of 300,000.
About 16.87 million babies were born in China and about 3.98 million in the U.S. in 2014, United Nations data shows. Even France, whose population is about half Japan’s, reported an estimated 760,000 births last year.
The Japanese government is making an effort to support families raising children. But many households that want to have children are unable to for economic reasons. Countries such as France offer generous support to parents. Reworking a social insurance system now tilted toward seniors’ needs, such as medical and nursing care, will be vital to maintaining a stable population balance for economic growth.