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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #223: June 11, 2004

Japan's birthrate falls to new record low

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

"Japan's birthrate falls to record low of 1.29, reports say"


The article reports that the birth rate, or in more accurate expression, "total fertility rate" of Japan dropped to a record low of 1.29 in 2003 from the previous year's 1.32, and cites concerns voiced by critics.

The total fertility rate (TFR) is defined as the average number of babies born to women during their reproductive years. It is considered the most important factor in determining future population. The TFR is actually a very precisely defined term of statistics, and certain care is warranted in handling the numbers. Accordingly, there could be technical reasons for another reduction in the figure for last year, as referred to by some bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. But even if certain amount of technical margin is assumed, the declining trend is too obvious, and the level is alarming.

As a frame of reference, the TFR has been declining globally for the past decades, and the TFR for the world in 1998 was 2.9. It was generally higher in developing countries, at 3.2, and lower in developed countries at 1.6. Looking at the individual figures among the developed countries for 2000 or 2001, depending on the availability of statistics, Italy was 1.24 and Germany showed 1.29, while Sweden was 1.57 and the UK at 1.63.

On the surface, compared to these other developed countries, Japan's figure of 1.29 may not seem so significant. But there are a number of factors that makes the case of Japan uniquely devastating.

One is the trendline of the TFR itself. Italy, for example, has hit the bottom in 1998 at 1.15 and since then it has stabilized if not rebounded, which is the same for Germany, experiencing the bottom in 1994 at 1.24. On the other hand, Japan has been renewing its record of low TFR for some time with no sign of rebound in sight.

Another is the pace of decline. Japan saw a peak of the TFR in 1948, at 4.32. It dropped to 3.65 in 1950 and has since then kept on decreasing. In that 1950, the TFR in Italy was at 2.52 and Germany at 2.05, while the UK was already at 2.19. The sharp decline of Japan compared to other countries means the impact it would have on the various sectors the whole framework of the country, including the national pension system, would be more severe.

And not the least of the issues is the immigration policy. Though technically not a subject of fertility per se, this is a major factor in assessing the effects of it on the future of the society. Whereas the European countries have been struggling with the matter, during the while accepting in fact a huge mass of immigrants, the issue has been evaded in Japan by not only the policymakers but also the whole society. It is probably time for the Japanese people to begin seriously considering the problem, if it is not already too late.

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