LAST month a local official in Aichi prefecture set out a daring proposal. Tomonaga Osada suggested that the authorities could distribute secretly punctured condoms to young married couples, who would then get to work boosting the birthrate. His unorthodox ploy won few supporters, yet it reflects a gathering concern about Japan’s demographic plight. Last year just over 1m babies were born, far fewer than the number needed to maintain the population, which is expected to drop from 127m to around 87m by 2060. Why are young Japanese so loth to procreate?
The spiral of demographic decline is spinning faster as the number of women of child-bearing age falls. In May a report predicted that 500 or more towns across the country will disappear by around 2040 as young women migrate to bigger cities. The workforce is already shrinking, imperiling future growth. In recent years governments have embarked on a plethora of schemes to encourage childbearing, including a “women’s handbook” to educate young females on the high and low points of their fertility, and state-sponsored matchmaking events.
The chief reason for the dearth of births is the decline of marriage. Fewer people are opting to wed, and they are doing so later in life. At least a third of young women aim to become full-time housewives, yet they struggle to find men who can support a traditional family. In better economic times potential suitors had permanent jobs as part of the “lifetime employment” system. Now many hold down temporary or part-time work. Other women shun marriage and children because Japan’s old-fashioned corporate culture, together with a dire shortage of childcare, would force them to give up their careers. Finally, young people are bound by strict social codes. Only around 2% of babies are born outside marriage (compared with 30-50% in most of the rich world), which means that as weddings plummet, so do births. Even for those who do start families, the rising cost of child-rearing often imposes a de facto one-child policy.
Thankfully there is little the government can do directly to boost productivity in the bedroom. Yet labour-market reforms could make a difference to the birth rate in the long term. If companies gave greater protections to new, young hires in return for lessening the privileges of other employees, young couples would have a more stable basis on which to marry and raise families. So far the government of Shinzo Abe has talked about such steps, but shied away from taking them. Instead Mr Abe is acting to help women combine careers with children. Many demographers reckon it is already too late to lift Japan’s birthrate, now at 1.43 children per woman. The eventual answer, they say, will be more shocking even than spiked prophylactics: mass immigration.