Trends in Japan

Population to Grow More Top-Heavy

FEBRUARY 14, 1997

New child-care faclities are being planned to promote birth-rate increase.
(Photo: Jiji Gaho sha)

The decision by more Japanese families to have fewer children, one of the main factors behind the rapid aging of the population, is turning into a major problem. The total fertility rate, or average number of children women bear in a lifetime, hit another record low of 1.46 in 1995 and is now expected to continue declining until the turn of the century.

Tracking the Fertility Rate
After hovering between 4 and 5 until the start of World War II and around 4.5 from 1947 to 1949, the postwar baby boom years, the fertility rate began to fall steadily, hitting 3.65 in 1950 and 2.04 in 1957. Following this, it stayed between 2.0 and 2.2 until 1974.
The following year, however, it dipped below the 2.0 benchmark to 1.91, and from there it began a rapid downward descent, hitting lows of 1.57 in 1989 and 1.46 in 1993. Despite a slight rebound to 1.50 in 1994, it fell again in 1995 to 1.42. Today, the Japanese rate is higher only than Germany's, which stood at 1.28 in 1993, and Italy's, which totaled 1.33 in 1992, among the industrial countries. To maintain the present Japanese population, a fertility rate of 2.08 is needed, and for more than two decades Japan's figure has failed to make that mark.

Elderly to Outnumber the Young This Year
According to the latest population projections released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the fertility rate will continue its slide from today's 1.42 to 1.38 in 2000, after which it will eventually stabilize at 1.61 in 2030.

The growing trend toward having fewer children coupled with a longer life span will have a profound impact on the population. According to the ministry's forecast, the number of people aged 65 or older will exceed the number of children under 15 by the end of this year, and the proportion of elderly will reach one in three by 2050. In addition, Japan's total population will drop to less than 100 million in 2051 and less than 70 million in 2095. Finally, the annual number of births in 2050 will be less than 70% of the 1996 figure.

Women's Changing Attitudes Toward Marriage
The explanation usually advanced for the trend toward having fewer children is the growing number of women who are active outside the home and their decision to marry later or remain single. The earnings gap has declined, and today men's salaries are 1.3 times more than women's, far less than the 1972 ratio of 1.9 to 1. A growing number of jobs have opened up to women, and more companies are giving them the same chances as men in hiring. Women today enjoy a degree of independence they have never known before.

The upshot has been a move to either delay marriage or remain single. The proportion of single women in the 25 to 29 age bracket surged from 30.6% in 1985 to 40.2% in 1990 and 49.0% in 1995, or about half of all women, according to national censuses for those years. At the same time, the average age of first marriage rose from 24.96 in 1960 to 27.17 in 1995, and the proportion of women who remain single throughout their lives, based on the marital status of 50-year-old women, increased from 1.87% to 5.28% during the same period, according to Health and Welfare Ministry findings.

Even after they are married, women are choosing to have fewer children because of growing work opportunities, the increasing amount of money and time needed for raising and educating children, and poor housing conditions.

Government Encourages Families to Have More Children
The trend toward having fewer children, the graying of the population, and population decline will have a profound impact on the country's economic, social welfare, and employment and wage systems if they continue to progress. Without major reforms to the fiscal and social-welfare systems, the tax and social security burden borne by individuals will have to be raised from the current level of 35.8% in fiscal 1996 (April 1996 to March 1997). This larger burden, coupled with a decline in the number of workers, will invariably cause a slowdown in economic growth. The pension system will be hardest hit, with the effect felt most by salaried workers now in their forties. In 1995 each person 65 years of age or older was supported by 5.8 people; in 2050 there will be only 2 workers for every elderly person. Medical insurance premiums will also have to be raised dramatically.

To lessen the impact of these trends and maintain the vitality of economic and social systems through the next century, the Government is now promoting sweeping administrative, economic, financial, social-welfare, fiscal, and education reforms. At the same time, it is hammering out countermeasures to stem the trend toward having fewer children and to boost the fertility rate. It is now considering ways to enhance its existing policies of providing child-care allowances, building and improving child-care facilities, and offering child-care leave. It has also begun exploring the possibility of reducing pension payments for families with young children.

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