The number of babies born in 2020 in Japan and to Japanese nationals abroad declined to some 870,000, a record low, according to a preliminary figure released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The number of marriages and reported pregnancies also dropped significantly from the previous year.
At this rate, the number of newborns in 2021 may dip below the 800,000-mark, estimates one researcher. If that happens, the pace of decline in Japan’s birthrate could jump 10 years ahead of the government’s current estimate.
These figures are apparently a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The nonregular workforce — a large portion of which is made up by women — bore the brunt of the fallout from the government’s business closure requests and other measures to curb the virus’ spread, as they were vulnerable to staffing adjustments. As a result, their livelihood became unstable.
The most common reason for couples not having the ideal number of children is the high cost of raising and educating them. The economic impact of the spread of COVID-19 has also affected household budgets, prompting couples to hesitate to start families.
It is an urgent task to relieve young people’s anxiety about marriage, childbirth and parenting.
While the Japanese government calls countermeasures against the falling birthrate its biggest challenge, its response to the issue has been severely lacking. It has applied public health insurance to fertility treatment — a step forward — but across-the-board measures to support families with small children remain scarce.
First and foremost, the government needs to focus on labor policy.
The rising number of unmarried people is a major factor behind the falling birthrate. The ratio of unmarried people is high especially among nonregular workers. Under current conditions, these workers must give up on marriage because their jobs and income are unstable. This must be remedied.
The government should urge businesses to thoroughly implement the principle of “equal pay for equal work,” and guide them to treat nonregular employees better. We also urge the government to enhance job training for growing sectors of the economy, to facilitate people’s switch from non-regular to regular employment.
It is also of concern that the percentage of students graduating from universities and other institutions this spring who have secured informal job offers has dropped from a year before, as it implies a possible rise in the number of nonregular laborers. It is essential for the national and local governments to provide information carefully and link students with companies.
To lighten the financial load of raising children, the government is also encouraged to boldly enhance child allowance and tuition-free programs for universities and other tertiary education institutions.
The previous administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set itself the goal of reducing day care waiting lists to zero, but this has yet to be achieved. Some people have pointed out that the quality of services provided by child care centers has declined.
We call upon the government to realize a society where young people can look forward to having and raising children.