Record Low Number of Babies Born in Japan

Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2012

Fewer babies were born in Japan in the last year than any other on record, pulling down its population for the third year in a row, according to government statistics released this week.

As of the end of March, Japan had more than 260,000 fewer people than a year earlier, the biggest drop of the Japanese population yet, according to Japanese media.

The baby bust has continued year after year despite Japanese efforts to nudge up the numbers: The government has doled out payments for couples with children and subsidized daycare. Japanese towns publicly herald the number of local births in city signs. Engineering students even crafted a cooing robotic baby years ago in hope of setting biological clocks ticking.

Taking a more pointed tack, one professor recently created an online clock that ominously counts down until Japan has no children left—a doomsday estimated to roll around in 3012.

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The Japanese are well aware of the problem, but birthrates continue to hover under 1.4 children per woman, far below the 2.1 needed to replace one generation with the next, said Noriko Tsuya, a Keio University statistician who leads a government committee on population. The number of marriages have dropped, and bearing children out of wedlock is rare, Tsuya said.

Experts say women forced to choose between child and career in Japanese companies have increasingly opted against babies. Despite government efforts to foster gender equality, Japanese women are still expected to shoulder chores at home, researchers have repeatedly noted. {snip}

Men seem to be losing interest in babymaking in the first place, with one government survey finding that more than a third of Japanese males ages 16 to 19 were uninterested in sex or even despised it; even more women said the same. The erosion of old guarantees of lifetime employment and the rise of temporary jobs are also damping the desire to start families.

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“The government is trying very hard but it’s very difficult to reverse this downward spiral of fertility,” Tsuya said. “What can you do? You’re not going to kill the healthy elderly. You’re not going to force people to have more kids. You could bring in people from the outside,  but Japan is not a country that brings in a lot of people from outside.”

Other countries with low birthrates have made up for their losses by welcoming immigrants, but Japan has been reluctant to do so. The big question, Traphagan said, is whether the shrinking population will push Japan to overcome that reluctance.

“It doesn’t seem like fertility is going to address the problem,” he said.

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