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Japan drifts away from fertility goal as efforts fail to stick

Government pushes for more time off but office traditions scare potential mothers

Japan's fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman gives birth to -- fell for a third year in a row in 2018. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

TOKYO -- Japanese births fell to a new low in 2018 as attempts at work reform designed to accommodate working mothers failed to reverse the trend, highlighting the grave challenge facing one of the world's most rapidly aging countries.

The country had 918,397 births, down by 27,668 from 2017, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The total fell below 1 million for the third straight year and was roughly a third of the 1949 peak of 2.69 million births.

The fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman gives birth to -- fell for the third straight year, to 1.42. The government says it wants to increase the figure to 1.8, but has been criticized for not improving conditions that would allow women to balance their careers and child-rearing, despite the rising number of women in the workforce.

"The government deserves some credit for the steps it has taken, such as work-style reforms and making early childhood education and care for young children free," said Masakazu Yamauchi, an associate professor at Waseda University.

Efforts to expand day care capacity have reduced waiting lists in a growing number of cities, including Tokyo. The government has also had some success with measures to reduce long work hours, including a recently imposed cap on overtime with penalties for violation.

But many of its moves focus on those who already have children. Support for young people more generally is limited to things like marriage-oriented matchmaking parties held by local governments.

"It's hard to say that young people's uncertainty about the future has been dispelled," Yamauchi said.

Achieving Japan's desired fertility rate -- the average number of children couples wish to have -- of 1.8 will require facilitating marriage, birth and child-rearing for all those who want them, regardless of age. This will mean overhauling Japan's traditional system of hiring new graduates right out of school and employing them for life.

Many women worry that taking time off work to have and raise children will harm their prospects of advancement. "I feel like if I get married, there will be restrictions on my time, and I won't be able to move up in my career," said a 28-year-old woman employed at an information technology company.

The government has acknowledged that Japan's career structure makes it difficult for people to choose working arrangements suited to their current life stage.

In France, which had the highest birth rate in the European Union in 2017 at 1.9, the average age of women at the birth of their first child was 28.7 that year, two years younger than in Japan.

The French government passed legislation last year that requires companies to close pay gaps between men and women. It sets standards for wages, handling of parental leave, raises and promotions, with businesses that fail to meet these conditions to be subject to fines starting in 2023. These rules could serve as a model for Japan.

Businesses will also need to work to create conditions more conducive to parenting. One option is to offer greater flexibility to new parents by reducing their workloads and hours at first, before letting them return to full-time employment once their lives settle down.

"There's little sense that the environment for raising children has really improved," said Mika Ikemoto of the Japan Research Institute, citing the long hours faced by child care workers as well as instances of child abuse. "The decline in birth rates is partly because it's become less clear to people that getting married and having children will make them happy."

"If we don't pursue a 'child-first society' that accommodates individual needs, birth rates are unlikely to go up," Ikemoto said.

The number of births in Japan has been on a consistent decline since the 1970s, and so-called second-generation baby boomers, those born during the economic boom of that decade, have entered their mid-40s.

As time goes on, more Japanese are opting to marry or have children at a later age.

The average age people are marrying for the first time is 31.1 for husbands and 29.4 for wives. The average age of mothers giving birth for the first time was 30.7 in 2018, a record high for the fourth straight year. As these trends play out, fewer couples are having more than one child.

Also, deaths in Japan far outnumber births. The number of deaths minus that of births in 2018 came to 444,085, the largest margin on record.

As a result of the declining births, about 28% of Japan's population is 65 and older, according to an estimate by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The same age bracket makes up 12% of the workforce.

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