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Despite Japan's best efforts, births hit new low

Global trend of weak wage growth leaves people reluctant to marry

A newborn at a hospital in Tokyo. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

TOKYO -- Births in Japan hit a record low last year, as people struggle to balance work and child care despite government subsidies and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's work-style reforms.

Japan had 946,060 births in 2017, the health ministry said Friday. The tally dropped by more than 30,000 for the first time in 12 years, falling further below the 1 million mark. Annual births in Japan peaked at 2.69 million in 1949.

Japan's total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime -- has now declined for two consecutive years to 1.43, down 0.01 point on the year.

The steep decline in births is linked to a drop in the population of women in fertile age groups. The number of women aged 15-49 shrank by 1.3% to 24.98 million. And those 25 to 39 -- the age group that accounts for about 80% of all births -- decreased by 2.5%.

The growing trend of putting off marriage and parenthood is also at play. The average age when women have their first child has risen to 30.7 -- reducing the likelihood of having a second.

"Women and men have different reasons for delaying marriage," says Kenji Yumoto, vice chairman of the Japan Research Institute. "Women hesitate to get married because they want to keep working, while men are not ready because of lower earnings from nonregular jobs."

The government estimates the desired fertility rate in Japan -- the number of children couples wish to have -- at 1.8, much higher than the actual fertility rate. The difficulty of balancing family life and work seems to be a barrier, especially in big cities.

The fertility rate in Tokyo was the lowest in all of Japan, down to 1.21 from 1.24 in 2016. The rate in Osaka declined 0.02 point to 1.35. Many households in large cities are dual-income nuclear families with no extended family nearby to help care for children. So a lack of child care facilities is a serious concern.

"Companies have a responsibility to foster an environment that gives employees the leeway to get married and have children," says Yasuko Matoba, a senior researcher at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. "Management should institute a healthier workplace with shorter hours and less stress."

Other advanced economies have also seen birthrates plunge. Six of the Group of Seven advanced economies -- all but Canada -- saw a drop last year. U.S. births declined to 3.85 million, the fewest in three decades.

The global financial crisis of 2008 and sluggish wage growth since have left many leery of having children. And the European debt crisis of 2010 and resulting steep cuts in public spending spurred people to put money in the bank rather than rush out and have kids, particularly in places like Italy and the U.K. Prior to 2010, France was seen as a rare example of a country successfully fighting population decline through generous child care support but the tide shifted there as well.

Germany is one exception. Births there likely fell for the first time in seven years last year but the drop was minimal. The country pulled off a V-shaped recovery in births with generous welfare programs. In the mid-1990s, the birthrate fell to the low 1.2 level but has recovered to 1.59 -- comparable to that in the early 1970s. Births in 2016 rose to a roughly 20-year high of 792,000.

The country's open-door policy for immigrants also likely helped. Babies born to foreign mothers increased 25% to 185,000 in 2017, accounting for nearly a quarter of all births.

Nikkei staff writers Jun Ishikawa in Berlin and Manabu Morimoto in Brussels contributed to this report.

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