. GLOCOM Platform
. . debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
. Newsletters
. Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #69: Feruary 10, 2004

Family Trends in 2003: Part Four -
Declining Birthrates, Fewer Marriages and Divorces

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

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

According to preliminary government data for the 2003, the three major influences on family trends, births, marriages and divorces, all registered decreases during the year. The number of babies born hit a new record low, continuing the general downward spiral of the past decade. Perhaps the most surprising statistic was the drop registered in the number of couples divorcing. This was the first decrease since 1991 and breaks the seemingly unstoppable momentum for ever higher divorce rates. The marriage rate also fell for a second straight year, perhaps signaling the beginning of a new downward trend.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released the population estimates for 2003 at the beginning of January 2004. These figures are based on projections extrapolated from statistics for the first 10 months of 2003 and provide a relatively good guide to overall trends. Normally, government estimates are accurate to within a range of two to three thousand of the official figures, which are released in about June.

The yearly statistics on family patterns are important as they give a detailed snapshot of Japan's most basic socio-economic unit as well as provide indicators about future social trends and economic developments. Recent changes in the structure of the average family are already having an enormous impact on the social fabric of Japan, creating a multitude of economic challenges. These range from a pension funding crisis arising out of the declining population to soaring welfare costs stemming from less stable family formation patterns and a rapidly graying population. How the state tackles these crucial issues will determine Japan's long-term economic destiny.

When recent data is compared with trends registered in the eighties, it becomes clear that the profile of the average Japanese family has already changed considerably. Japan is now a country where fewer people marry and those who tie the knot do so at a much later age than their parents' generation. Married couples also have fewer children and unlike in previous postwar generations many of these children are conceived prior to wedlock. According to Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour statistics released in March 2002, 26.3% of all brides were already pregnant before they married. Marriages of all durations are also more prone to divorce.

Birthrate Trends in 2003

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare estimates reveal that in 2003 about 1,121,000 babies were born in Japan, marking a record low level for the third consecutive year. The provisional figure reveal a fall of about 33,000 newborns, which is quite a considerable drop from the 2002 figure of 1,153,866 live births. The scale of the decline can best be gauged by comparing data from the two preceding years. Between 2001 and 2002, the number of babies decreased by 16,799 from the previous level of 1,170,662. Thus, the 2003 decline represent almost a doubling of the previous figure, a substantive decline. The table below illustrates the magnitude of the fall.

Number of Births and Fertility Rate 1990-2003

YearNumber of Live BirthsTotal Fertility Rate
2003About 1.121,000(not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2004

Since about 1950, the average number of babies born per woman has been on a gradual downward trajectory while the number of women never having any children has been rising. In 1950, the fertility rate was 3.65 but by 2002 this had slumped to 1.32. Expressed in another way, the number of the number of babies born per 1,000 people was 28.1 in 1950, but by 2003 it is estimated that this had plummeted to 8.9. Whatever measure is used, the decline is clearly a steep one.

The government designated 2003 as the first year of an action plan to aggressively tackle the low birthrate and enacted two related laws in July 2003. One new law requires national and local governments to strive to create social as well as other conditions favorable for raising children. The other law stipulates that corporations and local governments must work out action plans to assist parents in raising children.

The clear aim of both measures is to halt the declining birthrate by outlining the improvements and modifications that the government believes are necessary to the employment system, nursery-care services and other measures to assist parents in balancing work duties with their childrearing responsibilities. Statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare show the number of workplace nurseries has risen from 2,684 in 1992 to 3,534 in 2001.

Under the new legislation, local governments and private sector companies with more than 300 employees are required to work out their respective childcare programmes during fiscal 2004 and implement them during fiscal 2005. Numerical targets have been set related to various childcare provisions which employers have to achieve within 10 years. However, companies with under 300 employees are not legally required to map.

During 2004, the government is expected to submit a bill to revise the Child Care and Family Care Leave Law (kazokukaigo kyuuka) which currently allows either the mother or the father to take a one year leave of absence from work for child-rearing. An allowance of up to 40% of the basic wage can be paid for this leave (30% during the leave and 10% upon return to work). The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has stated that it aims to extend the current one-year leave of absence to two years and increase flexibility in how the parents take their breaks.

However, the persistent decline in the birthrate illustrates the tough task policymakers have in altering long-term population trends. 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.

Significantly, the natural population increase, an important demographic measure of growth, was at an all time low in 2003. This was in part due to a rise in the death rate. The number of recorded deaths was about 1.025 million, representing an increase of 43,000 on 2002. This rise combined with a severe drop in the fertility rate meant that the gap between the number of births and deaths was just 96,000. This is the first time since official statistics began in 1899 that the figure has dipped below the 100,000 level. This milestone dramatically underlines United Nation and Japanese government projections which predict an imminent decline in the country's population. Recent projections indicate that the population will peak in 2006, after which it will rapidly begin to fall unless there is large scale immigration. Population decline will create a whole host of challenges ranging from a radical restructuring of the labour market to a crisis in the pension and health care systems.

Marriage Trends in 2003

The provisional marriage statistics show that during 2003 there were about 737,000 registered unions. This represented a drop of about 20,300 from the previous year, but is not as severe as the 42,672 decline record in 2002. This is the second consecutive year in which the marriage rate fell and while it is too early to determine whether this represents the beginning of a prolonged decline, there are indications that it could be.

Over the past decade, the age at which people walk down the aisle has been steadily rising. Preliminary data for 2003 seems to indicate this trend is continuing. In 2001, the average age of marriage was 27.2 years for a woman and 29 years for a man. In 1950 the respective figures were 23 years for a woman and 25.9 years for a man. Family studies research indicates that the later people put off marrying, the greater the possibility that some of them will never marry.

Opinion surveys conducted in the mid-nineties show that marriage was highly popular with the vast majority of people hoping to do so at sometime in their life. However, in recent years the number of people who never marry has risen. This may indicate that besides just postponing the marriage decision, matrimony itself is losing some of its appeal. For example, there has been an increase in the number of women in their mid-thirties and above who state they never intend to marry. A poll by the Japan Institute of Life Insurance, released in January 2004, showed that roughly half of all Japanese single women aged between 35 to 54 have no intention of ever marrying.

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. There were slight upward swings in 2000 and 2001, which commentators said represented the preference for weddings at the beginning of the new millennium. Recent findings suggest that we may be entering a downward trend.

Number of Marriages and Marriage Rate 1990-2003>

YearNumber of MarriagesMarriage Rate
Per 1000 of Population
2003About 737,000(not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2004

One of the results of the current trend in late marriages has been fewer children. In 2001, the average age of first time motherhood was 28.2 years, just three decades earlier in 1970 the same figure was 25.6 years.

Divorce Trends in 2003

According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, one of the effects of the decline in the marriage rate maybe the first drop in the divorce figures since 1991. In 2003, there were about 286,000 divorce cases, about 4,000 fewer than in 2002. The 289,838 divorces registered in 2002 mark the highest number recorded since the current population statistics system began in 1899.

The number of divorces has been steadily increasing for over a decade and despite the small decrease registered in 2003, the year still has as the second highest divorce rate after 2002. The rise in the number of couples breaking up has produced many socio-economic consequences, especially for female divorcees with children. In August 2002, a government survey revealed that lone-mother families (comprising divorced, separated, widowed or unmarried mothers) were on average the most economically disadvantaged households in Japan. Many children in such households now live below the poverty line, which is creating a new set of social problems for society to deal with.

The surge in Japanese divorce rates has been across all age ranges with a large number of elderly couples divorcing. This has caused various problems relating to pension rights. Many elderly women who divorce have found themselves without adequate income because they were reliant on their husband's pension. To address this issue the governing coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito have agreed to introduce legislation during 2004 that would divide employee pension benefits between salaried workers and their dependent spouses at the time of their divorce. Precise details have yet to be worked out as the coalition parties are still in disagreement about key aspects of the policy.

Number of Divorces and Divorce Rate 1990-2003

YearNumber of DivorcesDivorce Rate
Per 1000 of Population
2003About 286,000(not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2004

In 2002, there were 2.3 divorces per thousand of population, placing the Japanese divorce rate somewhere in the middle band of European countries, but still low in comparison to the United States (see table below). Even though the American divorce rate has been falling in recent years, it is still high compared with all European countries and Japan.

International Comparison of Divorce Rates Per Thousand of Population

CountryYearDivorce Rate
per 1000 people
United States20014.0
Sources: European Commission 2003 and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (Japan), 2004

The Influence of Family Trends in 2004 on the Economy

During 2004, it appears that Japanese family patterns will continue to become more diverse than in previous decades and 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, accelerating population decline and increasing pressure on the already overburdened pension system. High divorce rates will continue to swell the ranks of single-parent households, increasing the number of Japanese families living in poverty. Creating effective policy to deal with these shifting social dynamics will determine the degree to which economy will be positively or negatively affected.

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

Most of the material in this social trends article first appeared in a presentation given to the Japan Discussion Group at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on Monday 9 February 2004. The presentation was entitled, "New Family Structures Change Japan: How Japanese Families are Reshaping the Nation's Socio-economic Landscape."

Related Series

Marriage and Divorce in Today's Japan

Family Trends

Family Issues and Japanese Social Policy

Poor Families in Today's Japan

International Marriages in Japan

The Declining Birthrate in Japan

Youth Trends in Japan

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications