TOKYO -- The number of babies born in Japan is declining even faster than expected, highlighting the need to support families in order to avert even greater strain on the nation's social safety net and economy.
Births during the January-July period fell 5.9% on the year to 518,590, the sharpest drop in 30 years, preliminary figures from the health ministry show. This marks the fourth straight yearly decline and a steeper fall than the 2% decrease for the first seven months of 2018.
Japan is on pace to slip below 900,000 births this year, after breaching the threshold of 1 million in 2016.
"This is because echo baby boomers are reaching the end of child-bearing age," said Takumi Fujinami at the Japan Research Institute. Those born between 1971 and 1974 will all be 45 years old or more this year.
The number of women of child-bearing age is declining rapidly. Data from October 2018 shows 9.07 million Japanese women in their 40s, compared with 6.96 million in their 30s and just 5.78 million in their 20s.
Japan's fertility rate -- the average number of children born per woman -- declined in 2018 for the third straight year to 1.42. The government has sought to boost this figure by building day care centers and encouraging workers to take maternity and paternity leave, with little success.
The January-July figures include babies born to foreigners in Japan as well as Japanese babies born abroad. The government excludes these roughly 30,000 babies from the official count, which totaled 918,000 in 2018. The rate of decline suggests the tally for 2019 could fall short of 900,000, even if foreigners are included.
Two years ago, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research projected 921,000 births in 2019. The institute did not forecast Japan's total to sink below 900,000 for another two years.
A declining birthrate threatens the sustainability of social security programs such as health care, pensions and nursing care, in which the working population supports the elderly. Worker shortages are occurring in some sectors, depressing Japan's potential economic growth rate.
Japan's birthrate among women in their late 30s differs little from the level of 1.7 to 1.9 in France and Sweden, but the figure is much lower for Japanese women in their 20s. Raising that figure depends on creating an environment that encourages a decision to have a child.
Because full-time employees in Japan typically work for one company until they retire, taking time off to give birth or raise children can hurt their careers. This has prompted women to have children later in life, making it harder for them to have a second child if they wish. Steps to change this could include having more corporations allow men to take part in child-rearing.