Will the 25 billion be enough to curb Japan’s “baby crash”?

The people of the Land of the Rising Sun seem to be at the twilight of their lives. In Japan, nearly 30% of citizens are 65 or older. This is a world record, behind Monaco which welcomes many retirees. Faced with a declining birth rate and in the hope of injecting a rebound, Tokyo announced a $25 billion plan on Thursday.

But is putting money on the table enough to encourage a population to reproduce? 20 minutes examines the question for you thanks to the expertise of Bénédicte Gastineau, demographer at the Research Institute for Development (IRD) and Stéphanie Toutain, sociologist demographer and teacher-researcher at the University of Paris Cité.

Is Japan suffering from a record low birth rate?

In 2022, the number of births in Japan fell below 800,000, the lowest since these statistics began in 1899. It is even almost half as many as forty years ago, according to figures. official, made public at the end of February. “Japan is experiencing aging from the bottom of the pyramid, with fewer births, but also from the top because the country has one of the highest life expectancies in the world”, recalls sociologist demographer Stéphanie Toutain. Almost a third of Japanese citizens are 65 or older. “The population is very old in Japan, only 12% of Japanese are under 15, twice as many as those who are 65 or over”, notes Bénédicte Gastineau, demographer at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) .

In addition, Japan is a country very closed to immigration. “The country lives in a vacuum, a situation all the easier because it is an archipelago. All of these factors are leading to a demographic winter in Japan,” explains Stéphanie Toutain. A myriad of other countries do not have enough births to renew the population, like South Korea or Italy. But with 800,000 births per year for 120 million inhabitants, the land of the rising sun is particularly impacted. “For comparison, in France we record 700,000 births per year for 70 million inhabitants”, slips the teacher-researcher at the University of Paris Cité. “If fertility remains so low, Japan is in danger of disappearing. 900 municipalities are already on the verge of extinction in the country,” explains Bénédicte Gastineau.

Do pro-birth policies work?

In the hope of curbing the phenomenon, the Japanese government has put a 25 billion dollar plan on the table. On the menu are intertwined direct financial aid for parents, financial aid for education and prenatal care, parental leave for fathers and the promotion of flexible working hours. “Financial aid is designed to encourage citizens to reproduce but I think it has little impact on the fertility of a country. It only helps those who had already planned to have children,” says Stéphanie Toutain. “In many European countries, a lot of pro-birth financial aid has been put in place without managing to prevent the decline in fertility,” she recalls.

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Pro-birth policies are very expensive – as evidenced by this $25 billion plan – for often meager results. However, by supporting the economy in recent years, Tokyo has already greatly increased its public debt. The archipelago, which also plans to significantly increase its military spending, could face a financial pitfall by putting so much money on the table to encourage the birth rate. Especially since the lack of financial support for parents is far from being the only reason for the country’s demographic decline. “We have to ask ourselves the question of why,” underlines Bénédicte Gastineau.

Apart from money, what means can have a positive effect on the birth rate?

“Fertility is a very complex phenomenon that depends on multiple factors. Reducing it to financial measures would be a mistake”, asks Stéphanie Toutain straight away. Japan faces many birth rate issues. The traditional distribution of roles is very fixed in the archipelago. According to a government study in 2021, Japanese women spend four times more time on children and household chores than men. It is very frowned upon and very difficult, due to the lack of childcare options, for a mother to continue working. This explains why Japan has the highest rate of women over 50 without children in the OECD, at almost 30%.

“To increase fertility, the place of women will have to change,” warns Bénédicte Gastineau. The demographer also points to the place of the child, who must be ultra-efficient with all that this implies in terms of financial investment (private lessons, music lessons, etc.) but also the rigidity of the family structure. Only 2.4% of births in the country occur outside marriage, the lowest rate among OECD countries. The bandages constituted by government announcements will be insufficient to change the model of society. “In Japan, the woman is the one who raises her child. I am not sure that these measures are enough to thwart this cultural image, which is deeply rooted in society. In Sweden, it works but the Japanese culture is quite different”, says Stéphanie Toutain.

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