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Japan's pandemic baby bust seen pushing births below 800,000

Virus adds to uncertainty over marriage and raising children

Japan's birthrate is falling far faster than previous estimates had anticipated. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

TOKYO -- Annual births in Japan are expected to fall below 800,000 next year, crossing a grim milestone more than a decade earlier than previously anticipated, as uncertainty caused by the pandemic accelerates a yearslong decline.

Based on the number of reported pregnancies and other data, Takumi Fujinami of the Japan Research Institute estimates annual births at 848,000 this year and 792,000 in 2021, just a third of the levels seen during the postwar baby boom. The most recent projection by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, in 2017, had shown the tally crossing the 800,000 threshold 12 years later.

The trend threatens to put further pressure on the already-shrinking working-age population that supports the country's social safety net.

Aiwa Hospital in Saitama Prefecture normally handles more than 2,500 births a year. But it saw a roughly 5% drop between April and November in first-time patients coming in for pregnancy confirmations and other services, compared with the same period a year earlier, and has around 20% fewer deliveries scheduled for January and February 2021 than in the first two months of 2020 -- almost unprecedented declines.

The National Center for Child Health and Development also sees a slump in scheduled deliveries over the first two months of 2021, and a sluggish recovery from March on. "There are probably people who are hesitating to have children due to uncertainty, economic and otherwise, about the future," said Haruhiko Sago, a senior official at the center.

The slump in pregnancies shows up in official data. Health Ministry statistics announced Thursday show a 5.1% decline on the year in reported pregnancies for the first 10 months of 2020, with a 17.6% plunge in May, the month after the government declared a state of emergency. Virus hot spots experienced particularly steep drop-offs between April and October -- 9.1% in Tokyo, 8.1% in Hokkaido and 7.6% in Osaka.

A recent drop in marriages is cause for concern as well. There were 424,000 marriages in the 10 months through October, according to preliminary data, down more than 13% from the same period of 2019.

The trend to shun marriages "may lead to a decline in births over the medium to long term," Fujinami warned.

This would further cut into an already shrinking population. Based on current birthrates, Takuya Hoshino of the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute predicts that Japan's population will fall below 100 million in 2049, four years sooner than in the estimate by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

That would mean Japan's population shrinking by more than 25 million -- the rough equivalent of two Tokyos -- over the next three decades.

Hoshino sees a risk of cultural shifts spurred by the pandemic exacerbating the downturn in births and marriages. "If shifts like working from home take hold and people go out less, there will be fewer opportunities to meet" potential partners, he said.

"Measures will need to be taken after the pandemic to return births and marriages to their previous levels," he said.

Over the past few years, the government has tries to make changes to Japan's social insurance system to lighten the burden on younger people. But reforms may not be able to keep up with a faster-than-expected drop in the working-age population, and a heavier economic load on young people may further discourage marriage and child-rearing, sparking a vicious cycle.

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