As Shannon blogged about a few weeks ago, Japan is undertaking its once-every-five-years national census. The results of this census will give us a better indication as to how far Japan’s population has fallen since the last census and how far the population is likely to fall. Of course, the Japanese government is not simply sitting on its hands as its population declines and gets older, and the proportion of its taxpayers subsides.

According to a Bloomberg report, the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is bringing in a range of measures to increase Japan’s birth rate and thus to stabilise the declining population. In a speech on 24 September Abe spoke of “an impending labour crisis” (some estimates have the working population declining by 40percent to 38 million in 2060).

Interestingly enough, this crisis isn’t large enough for the Japanese government to be open to the idea of increasing immigration to bolster its flagging native population (as other countries are doing with low birth rates, particularly in Europe). Abe instead is trying to focus on increasing birthrates, and keeping larger numbers of women and elderly in the workforce before turning to largescale immigration. Even if these measures are successful, however, the result will not be a reversal of Japan’s population decline and an increase in Japanese numbers.

Instead, Abe’s stated goal is more modest: to increase the fertility rate from 1.4 children per woman to 1.8 and to stabilise Japan’s population at 100 million in 2065 (it currently sits at around 127 million). However, even these relatively modest goals may be unreachable:

“‘The tide is against him,’ said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. ‘Marriage rates have gone down, the fertility rate is below replacement level. I don’t think there are many pro-fertility policies the government can introduce that will reverse the trend because of the high cost of raising a kid and the opportunity cost in terms of careers.’”

Despite this, the government is working on a number of measures. The first may be one of inspiration – a new cabinet post responsible for reversing the declining birthrate and the stopping the flow of people leaving the labour force to care for elderly relatives was given to Katsunobu Kato on Wednesday. Kato has four children. As well as population, Kato will be in charge of portfolios dealing with gender equality and women’s empowerment. Perhaps these portfolios will dovetail nicely together – one of the measures needed seems to be helping women juggle family and career (and getting men to help around the house!!) As one Japanese woman noted, an “environment” needs to be put in place to make it easier to raise a family:

“‘Just increasing the number of daycare centers wouldn’t make people have more kids,’ said 31-year-old Tomomi Akihama, who spends an hour delivering her two children to separate daycare centers by bicycle in the morning before work. ‘What we need is an environment that makes it easier.’

That would include providing opportunities to return to work after a career break raising children, the Tokyo resident said. But there’s also a more practical barrier to having more than two kids.

‘You couldn’t move them around,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t fit on the bicycle.’” 

While changing the “environment” may be difficult, Abe’s government has committed itself to helping the demographic picture in more tangible ways. Abe has promised to support Japanese seeking fertility treatment, to cut waiting list for childcare to zero (it stood at 23,000 children in April – not because of so many children being born, but due to more women staying in paid work after having children), to expand free preschool education and finally to provide support for “three-generation” households where grandparents can act as babysitters, freeing up parents to go to work. However, as Bloomberg tersely notes:

“Such measures have met with little success in Singapore, which faces its own demographic woes.”

The Japanese government has recognised the problem that it is facing. Whether it can meaningfully do anything about it is another matter.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...