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1999 Birthrate Plummeting to a Record Low

January 31, 2000

The number of babies being born every month in Japan has been falling rapidly since May 1999, a survey by the Ministry of Health and Welfare has revealed. Ten years ago, in 1989, shock reverberated throughout Japan when the country's total special birthrate--the average number of children that a woman bears over a lifetime--plunged 0.9 points from the previous year to 1.57. If the current pace continues, though, the 1999 rate is set to be the lowest ever recorded, below the 1998 figure of 1.38 and much lower than even the most pessimist forecasts. Gravely concerned with the possible effects of this trend on Japan's society and economy in coming years, the government has begun looking earnestly into measures to reverse the situation.

Job Insecurity Casts Shadow
According to the Health and Welfare Ministry's survey results, from January through April 1999 babies were being born roughly in pace with the same period the year before. Since May, however, when the number of births fell short by 2,500, the birthrate has been in slump: 4,300 fewer babies than the year before were born in June, 4,000 in July, and 2,000 in August. At this rate, the annual total is destined to fall below not only the 1998 figure of 1.203 million babies, but also the all-time low of 1.187 million recorded in 1995.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research had predicted that in 1999 the number of childbirths would rise from the previous year's figure to its intermediate estimate of 1.23 million. But in reality the total may dip under the 1.19-million line, the institute's lower estimate. The total special birthrate for 1999 may also end up considerably lower than the 1998 level of 1.38, against the Health and Welfare Ministry's projection that it would remain stable before rising again soon.

The ministry is not certain what has caused this drop: "In 1998 the annual number of marriages shot up from the year before by about 9,000, so it seems strange that the childbirth rate would drop after May." It speculates, though, that many couples faced with decreased incomes and job insecurity caused by a prolonged economic slump may be putting off having children. Others suggest that a number of young couples are waiting to have their babies at the dawn of a new millennium or new century.

Government Moves to Pump Up the Birthrate
Birthrates in Japan after World War II peaked between 1947 and 1949, when some 2.6 to 2.7 million babies were born annually--the first baby boom. Those born during these three years have been collectively called the dankai (mass) generation. This generation brought about the second baby boom, bearing over 2 million babies each year from 1971 to 1974. The dankai juniors, as those born during the second boom are called, are now about 24 to 28 years old--in other words, around the normal age to enter parenthood. But instead of their giving rise to a third baby boom, the number of births is actually falling at an alarming rate.

In February 1999 the Prime Minister's Office carried out a public opinion poll on the falling birthrate. Of the men surveyed, 30% said that they see marriage as a burden, with over half of them giving financial factors as the reason. Women viewing marriage as a burden came to 40%, their reasons mainly being housework, child rearing, nursing their aged parents-in-law, and coping with the double responsibilities of work and homemaking. Asked whether they felt that married couples should have children, over 20% of women between the ages of 18 and 39 said no--close to twice the percentage for men. These attitudes point to the possibility of a further decline in Japan's birthrate.

Deeply concerned with the current situation, the Japanese government has allotted 200 billion yen (2 billion U.S. dollars at 100 yen to the dollar) of the first supplementary budget for fiscal 1999 to measures for stepping up child-rearing support, such as the construction of more day-care facilities near train stations. The parties of the ruling coalition, headed by the Liberal Democratic Party, have also drawn up concrete plans to extend the child allowance to parents of children up through preschool age in the fiscal 2000 budget; currently only parents of children under three years old are eligible to receive the allowance, which aims to ease the financial burden of child rearing.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.