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Editorial: Japan needs to step up policy efforts to boost lagging birthrate

  • June 5, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 2:13 p.m.
  • English Press

The Cabinet on May 29 agreed on an outline of the policy efforts in the next five years to stem Japan’s demographic decline due to low birthrates.

 

The government’s strategy for tackling the serious and intractable problem through a set of measures including child care support will cover the period through 2025.

 

An estimated 864,000 babies were born in Japan last year. Alarmed by the faster-than-expected pace at which the number of children in this nation is sinking, the government has compiled a new package of measures to reverse the trend featuring benefits for child care leave, expansion of child care support and financial incentives for infertility treatments.

 

But it is not clear how all these measures will be financed. The government will have to determine ways to budget for the package.

 

In addition to the need to spend a colossal amount of money to mitigate the economic damage from the new coronavirus pandemic, the government is also facing an expected sharp drop in tax revenues due to a serious economic downturn.

 

The government has failed to clarify the financing plans for the package probably because it is extremely difficult to secure financial sources for new policy measures.

 

But Japan has been trailing many other industrial nations in spending in this policy area. Support to young generations should be viewed as an investment in the future.

 

Few would dispute the urgent need to take steps to protect jobs and rescue the economy. But that does not justify delaying debate on policy issues that have huge implications for the nation’s future.

 

The new outline of the government’s efforts to boost Japan’s fertility rate calls for creating a social and economic environment that offers brighter prospects for the future of young generations. The headline target is the “desired fertility rate of 1.8,” the estimated fertility rate that would be recorded if all people wishing to get married and have children see their wishes come true.

 

Needless to say, it is up to each individual to decide whether he or she wants to get married and have children. The government needs to explain its demographic policy agenda in detail and make it widely known so that the measures will not impose values or pressure on anybody.

 

Other key policy targets include raising the ratio of male employees taking child care leave to 30 percent in 2025 and reducing to zero the number of children on waiting lists for day care centers at the end of March 2021. But many of the targets set by the previous outline, announced five years ago, have yet to be achieved.

 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has described the combination of the aging society and the declining birthrate in Japan as a “national crisis.”

 

The Abe administration should demonstrate its solid commitment to tackling this challenge by making serious efforts to find out why the targets have not been achieved and whether the policy measures taken have been really effective. Through these efforts, they can learn lessons for enacting specific action plans to accomplish the mission.

 

One key feature of the Abe administration’s demographic policy agenda is free day care or kindergarten for children aged 3 to 5. But the most pressing need voiced by parents of young children today is for “immediate openings at day care facilities,” not free services.

 

While some experts have pointed out that this program could actually increase the number of children waiting to be admitted to these facilities, the government has not changed its past plans or targets concerning the expansion of day care capacity. They should be reviewed first. 

 

Long working hours and the disproportionately heavy burden of child care and household chores borne by women have long been major obstacles to rearing children while working in this nation.

 

Effective efforts to change corporate cultures, work styles and mindsets in society can be made without spending huge amounts of taxpayer money.

 

As the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the spread of teleworking, many Japanese men have probably become more involved in doing housework and looking after children.

 

This crisis offers a great opportunity for Japanese to rethink the ways they work and live.

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