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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #26: February 6, 2003

Family Trends in 2002: Part One -
Declining Birthrates, Fewer Marriages, More Divorces

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

Figures released at the beginning of 2003 by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare give a strong indication of what the most likely family trends will be over the next twelve months.* Data suggests that the forces which have been strongly influencing Japanese family formation for over a decade will continue to gather momentum. According to preliminary government statistics for 2002, the number of newborns hit a record low, the marriage rate declined, and couples divorcing reached a new all-time high. In the coming decades, this trio of long-term trends will almost certainly reshape the entire socio-economic landscape of Japan. In the future, the makeup of the average Japanese family will be radically different from its recent predecessors.

Birthrate Trends in 2002

Estimates by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reveal that in 2002 about 1,156,000 babies were born in Japan.* This is the lowest number since the ending of WWII back in 1945. The latest figure represents a decrease of about 15,000 babies from the 2001 level of 1,170,662 newborns. At the time of release, the 2001 figure was itself a record low, representing a decrease of about 20,000 live births from 2000. Since 1950, the average number of babies born per woman has been on a general downward spiral. Most years in the past decade have recorded a decline in the birthrate rate. In 2001, the national fertility rate stood at an all-time low of 1.33 children per woman and once the new figure for 2002 has been calculated it is likely to dip even lower.

Number of Births and Fertility Rate 1990-2002
YearNumber of Live BirthsTotal Fertility Rate
2002About 1,156,000(Provisional figure
not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2003

The government has designated 2003 as the first year of its action plan to aggressively tackle the low birthrate, but given the persistent long-term nature of the decline, just stabilizing the current birthrate will be an extremely difficult challenge. Unless there is a large influx of immigrants into the country, the birthrate will remain low with the number of newborns set to decline still further over the coming years.

Marriage Trends in 2002

The provisional marriage statistics show that during 2002 about 755,000 couples tied the matrimonial knot. This figure was down by 45,000 couples from the 2001 level.* The drop corresponds to roughly a 5.6% fall, but at this juncture it is too early to tell whether this represents the beginning of a decline. There was a slight upward swing in 2000, which represented the preference for weddings at the beginning of the new millennium. Over the past decade, the marriage rate has hovered in a narrow band ranging from between 6.1 to 6.4 per 1000 of population. **

Number of Marriages and Marriage Rate 1990-2002
YearNumber of MarriagesMarriage Rate
Rate Per 1000 of Population
2002About 755,000(Provisional figure
not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2003

Opinion surveys show that marriage still remains very popular, although the age at which people walk down the aisle is steadily rising. Preliminary data for 2002 appears to indicate that couples are continuing to marry later and consequently having fewer children. This trend is just one of the complex web of factors behind the low birthrate. In 2001, the average age of first time motherhood was 28.2 years which is approximately one year after the average female age of marriage. In 2001, the average age of marriage was 27.2 years for a woman and 29 years for a man. Initial regional data indicates that both these figures will probably have risen still higher in 2002.

Divorce Trends in 2002

While the number of people marrying declined, those couples filing for a divorce continued to soar. The initial data for 2002 shows that divorces hit a record high of about 292,000.* This represents an increase of roughly 6,000 from 2001, corresponding to about a 2.1% rise from the previous year. The number of divorces has been steadily increasing for over a decade and shows no signs of receding.*** The divorce rate per 1000 people for 2002 has yet to be calculated, but the provisional data indicates that it will be higher than in 2001, which itself touched a modern day milestone of 2.27 per thousand people.

Number of Divorces and Divorce Rate 1990-2002
YearNumber of DivorcesDivorce Rate
Rate Per 1000 of Population
2002About 292,000(Provisional figure
not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2003

The Influence of Family Trends on the Economy

In 2003, it seems almost certain that the Japanese family will continue to become more diverse, following a pattern which began to emerge in the eighties. The ongoing changes will have a strong influence on the economy. The late marriage trend will continue to push down the average number of children per family, accentuating the already serious imbalances in the current pension system.

The ever rising divorce rate will further swell the already overflowing ranks of single-parent households, increasing the number of Japanese families living in poverty. This situation may finally pressurize the government into tackling the current inadequacies of the divorce system and perhaps even improving the woefully inadequate child maintenance system and the meagre single-parent welfare provisions.****

In a decade from now, Japanese family patterns will be completely different from those that dominated in the eighties and nineties. Creating effective policy to deal with these shifts will determine the degree to which economic growth will be adversely affected.


* For the sources of the statistics quoted in this article see the following:
Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

Shussei saitei no 115 man 6000 nin
[Birthrate, at all-time low of 1,156,000 babies]
Nihon Keizai Shimbun, 1 January 2003

Kyonen no shusseisuu, kako saitei koushin 115 man 6000 nin
[Last year's birthrate, a new all-time low of 1,156,000 babies]
Asahi Shimbun, 1 January 2003

** Japanese Marriage Trends in 2002: Later Unions and More Diverse Families
Social Trends: Series #9, GLOCOM Platform, 3 October 2002

*** The Current State of Divorce in Japan: Record Number of Marital Dissolutions in 2001
Social Trends: Series #10, GLOCOM Platform, 7 October 2002

**** Poorest Japanese Families Getting Poorer
Social Trends: Series #4, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2002

Inequality in Japanese Marriage and Divorce Laws in 2002
Social Trends: Series #12, GLOCOM Platform, 21 October 2002

Inadequate Social Welfare Provisions for Poor Japanese Families: Increasing Cases of Destitution in 2002
Social Trends: Series #11, GLOCOM Platform, 17 October 2002

Other Related Articles

Living Longer, Divorcing Later: The Japanese Silver Divorce Phenomenon
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 5 August 2002

International Marriages in Japan: Part Four – Basic Data on International Marriage in 2002
Social Trends: Series #16, GLOCOM Platform, 12 November 2002

International Marriages in Japan: Part Three –Amerasian Children in Okinawa
Social Trends: Series #15, GLOCOM Platform, 8 November 2002

International Marriages in Japan: Part Two – Impact of 17 October 2002 Supreme Court decision on International Marriages
Social Trends: Series #14, GLOCOM Platform, 28 October 2002

International Marriages in Japan: Part One - Visa status of non-Japanese spouses in 2002
Social Trends: Series #13, GLOCOM Platform, 28 October 2002

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