Hello again everyone! Happy New Year and may 2018 be a happy one for you all. To start the new year I thought we’d return to Japan –it is such a fascinating study of a country in demographic decline. In 2016, there were 300,000 more deaths than births in the country and the population is expected to drop by at least a third in the next few decades. Reversing this demographic decline is one of the priorities of the Japanese Government. However, this is not an easy thing to do in a country where marriage and even sex is becoming less common.
One small town may provide a case study of how fertility rates can be increased and population decline averted. Nagicho, near Mount Nagi, has a population of only about 6,000 people. Until recently it had a fertility of about 1.4 children per woman which is roughly the national average. However, something interesting happened – in 2014 the total fertility rate doubled to 2.8. It has since subsided back to 1.9, below the replacement rate of 2.1, but still significantly above the national average. If this trend continues, then whatever changed in the town to increase the fertility rate could be studied carefully to see if it can be replicated on a national scale.
More money from the local government has helped – the town increased its spending on raising fertility from 2 to 3% of the annual budget. This has been used for a number of different initiatives: a “celebratory” gift for each child of about 2,700USD; a subsidised baby-sitting service for only 16USD per day; subsidised carseats and other baby accessories. When the child reaches secondary school the parents receive about 900USD per year to cover the cost of transportation to school. Finally, the 30% of the child’s health-care bills that everyone in Japan must pay (except the poorest and the old) are paid for by the local government. Less directly, the town is encouraging jobs for young families – volunteers run its two nurseries and any business that relocates to the town receives rent-free land (since 2014, three have moved to Nagicho). There are also refurbished and newly built apartments and houses for rents at subsidised rates. All this will hopefully encourage Nagicho residents to have more children and to keep its population from sliding any further below 6,000 people. If it manages to do so, then the town would have achieved a remarkable feat – its population was around 9,000 people back in 1955 and currently one-third of its residents are over 65 years old. Which means that a lot of babies are going to have to be born in the next few years to balance those who are reaching the end of life’s journey.
While the economic incentives could be replicated elsewhere, a resident of the town, Hiroko Kaihara, thinks that there are some things about living in Nagicho which are unique. There is a slowness to life and a sense of community which is special and hard to recreate elsewhere. “Mothers feel safe having more children; it’s not easy to create those conditions” she said. I wonder if the ability for husbands and wives to work near home, and to miss a commute might add to the sense that having a family in Nagicho is possible. One wonders how this can be copied in cities like Tokyo and Osaka which are the only places in Japan that are currently growing in population. Unfortunately, towns like Nagicho are disappearing in Japan, and with them go many of the conditions that make having a family possible and desirable.