A Japanese cabinet minister responsible for tackling the country’s falling birth rate on Friday unveiled a draft proposal aimed at reversing the downward trend, including increased subsidies for child rearing and education and a raise for younger workers to encourage marriage and create children.
Japan’s population of more than 125 million has been declining for 15 years and is expected to drop to 86.7 million by 2060. A shrinking and aging population is having a huge impact on the economy and national security as the country strengthens its military to counter China’s increasingly assertive territorial ambitions.
Children’s Policy Minister Masanobu Ogura said the next few years may be “a last chance” for Japan to reverse its fertility decline. If the number of births continues to fall at the rate since the early 2000s, the young population will shrink twice as fast in the 2030s, he said.
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Many younger Japanese have refused to marry or start families, discouraged by bleak job prospects, corporate cultures incompatible with the work of either parent — especially women — and a lack of public tolerance for young children.
To address the problems, Ogura’s plan calls for increased financial support, including more government subsidies for raising children, more generous student loans for higher education, and better access to childcare services. It also aims to change the cultural mindset towards more gender equality both in the workplace and at home. The proposal also includes increased government support for companies to encourage more male employees to take paternity leave, which has been a point of contention for working fathers who fear retaliation.
“While different views on marriage, childbirth and child-rearing should be respected, we want to create a society where young generations can marry, have children and raise children as they please,” Ogura said. “The fundamental direction of our action to combat low birth rates is to reverse the trend of declining birth rates by supporting individuals’ pursuit of happiness.”
He said he submitted the proposal to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for further consideration. It will be part of a larger policy package that the Kishida government will put together in June.
In 2022, Japan had 799,728 newborns, a record low that fell below 800,000 for the first time since counts began in 1899. Many couples are reluctant to expand their families because of rising costs.
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Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, but the cost of living is high, wage increases are slow, and about 40% of Japanese people are part-time or contract workers. Critics say the government is lagging behind in creating a more inclusive society for children, women and minorities.
Under the Conservative ruling party, which supports traditional family values and gender roles, women who are unmarried or childless tend to be less respected, and marriage is a requirement for children.
The estimated cost was not mentioned in Ogura’s proposal.
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So far, government efforts to encourage people to have more babies have had limited effect, despite subsidies for pregnancy, childbirth and childcare.
In a country that ranks among the worst in the world for gender equality, the situation hinders women from pursuing a career after marriage or after having children.
The majority of Japanese between the ages of 18 and 34 say they intend to marry at some point but plan to have fewer than two children. A growing percentage say they have no intention of getting married, according to data cited in the proposal.
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