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Japan's steepening birthrate decline defies policy support

Coronavirus risks worse rich-nation dilemma from South Korea to France

A kindergarten in Japan: The country's birthrate has hit a 12-year low. (Photo by Kotaro Igarashi)

TOKYO -- Japan on Friday announced its lowest fertility rate since 2007, marking four years of decline and underscoring a persistent challenge that countries from South Korea to France have yet to solve.

Japan's total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman will give birth to in her lifetime -- dropped 0.6 point to 1.36 last year, though it remains above the record low of 1.26 set in 2005. Tokyo logged the lowest rate of any of the country's regions, reaching just 1.15.

The country's decades-long downtrend in fertility rates is a problem shared by advanced economies across Asia and the world. It shows little sign of stopping, and could fall further as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the global economy.

"The difficulties that younger generations face in establishing families have not improved," said population expert Ryuichi Kaneko, a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. "There will probably be couples who put off having children because of the coronavirus. It's possible that the number and rate of births could go even lower going forward."

Parenting at Seoul's Gimpo airport: South Korea's fertility rate reached a worldwide low of 0.92 in 2019.   © Reuters

South Korea's total fertility rate fell below 1 for the first time in 2018 and reached a worldwide low of 0.92 last year, suggesting that government efforts to encourage child-rearing have done little good.

Surging home prices have left many households unable to afford to raise a family, and women, typically saddled with the bulk of child care responsibilities, still struggle to balance them with work.

France saw its fertility rate fall to 1.88 in 2018 from 2.01 in 2008 -- below the level of about 2 needed to sustain a population. This is despite generous benefits for new parents that had been seen as a potential solution to the demographic challenge.

A decline in childbearing among those in their 20s indicates that "women are focusing on their careers and delaying childbirth," said Megumu Murakami of the Japan Research Institute.

Promoting work styles that are compatible with raising children remains a challenge in Japan as well. For parental leave to become more widespread, new parents need the freedom to step away from work or cut back their hours before returning to full-time positions.

Germany is one advanced economy that has bucked the trend. In Germany, where fathers are more actively involved in raising children than elsewhere, the fertility rate rose 0.19 point in 2018 to 1.57.

The German government in 2013 guaranteed all children would have a right to a slot in a child care facility from the age of one. Since 2007, it has offered "parental benefits" covering up to two-thirds of lost income for parents who go on leave or reduce working hours to care for a new child. The payments last for 12 months if taken by only one parent, with an additional two months available if both parents use the benefit.

Last year, 35.8% of new fathers in Germany took paternity leave. For Japan, the most recent figure is just 6%.

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