THE WORLD has an obsession with Japan’s shrinking population. Each year, news that the country is a little bit smaller can reliably be called upon for column inches, which tend to examine it as a Japanese mystery — one of those inherently Oriental concepts that foreigners could not possibly penetrate, like wabi-sabi or the bushido code of samurai warriors.
The New York Times asked in 2012, “Without babies, can Japan survive?” The Atlantic wrote about “the mystery of why Japanese people are having so few babies.” To be fair, Japan talks about the population crisis as much as anyone, with one paper recently calling for the declaration of a “declining birth-rate state of emergency.”
The proposal has echoes of the “climate emergency” legislation passed by governments such as the UK to heighten awareness of global warming. But Japan is to the fertility crisis what low-lying Pacific Islands are to the environmental crisis: just an early signal of the same problems that are coming for everywhere else.
Japan first took serious notice of its declining births in 1989, in an event known as the “1.57 Shock” — the total fertility rate (TFR) that was recorded that year, less even than the 1.58 of 1966*, when couples avoided having kids due to superstition over an inauspicious event in the Chinese Zodiac.
Despite three decades of task forces, government support programs, and ministers in charge of the issue, little has changed. While the decline in the birth rate has been arrested, Japan has been able to do almost nothing to significantly raise it. A record low of 1.26 was recorded in 2005, which has risen to 1.3 in 2021 — and while that’s impacted by the pandemic, it hasn’t been above 1.5 in more than three decades.
Japan is often convinced that its economic malaise since the 1980s is the root of its ills, but that link seems less than clear. Births dropped all through the 1970s and ’80s, with the “1.57 Shock” coming at the peak of its economic might. If anything, there seems to be an inverse relationship between wealth and fertility: Okinawa, the country’s poorest region, consistently has the highest rate, with wealthy Tokyo the lowest. The experience of other countries also indicates differently, with rich Singapore at an even lower rate than Japan. Almost every country in Europe lies below the 2.1 level needed to maintain the population, with countries including Croatia, Portugal, and Greece all set to lose similar levels to Japan over the next three decades.
“Economic conditions are not so helpful in explaining persistent trends,” explains Mikko Myrskyla, director of the Rostock, Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. “Scientists are somewhat helpless in explaining what then drives the long-term change.”
It’s a variation on the Anna Karenina principle: All fertile societies are alike; each infertile society is infertile in its own way.
While Western media once tended to obsess over how little sex the Japanese might be having, the same phenomenon is now being observed across the globe. Are there other unique social conditions, perhaps? Seen through a western lens, some of Japan’s problems might seem obvious: A notorious culture of overtime work or waiting lists for kindergartens.
Yet many of these issues are no longer as chronic as they once were — and alleviating them has had little impact on fertility. Average overtime hours have halved in less than 10 years, according to one report. The number of kids on waiting lists for kindergartens has plunged, down nearly 80% in 2021 from 2017, even as the female labor participation rate has risen.
What about Japan’s low gender equality? If anything, women’s increasing role outside the home in recent decades is one factor contributing to the decline, enabling women to delay marriage or not marry at all, according to one report. Nearby Taiwan touts itself as the most gender-equal society in Asia, but has a TFR rate of just 1.08 — the worst in the world, according to one estimate.
“Japan may have its own idiosyncrasies, but given the very large number of countries with persistent low fertility, each reaching low fertility its own way, it would be difficult to single out something specific,” said Myrskyla. He points to European countries such as Italy, Germany, Finland, and Hungary, where gender norms and public support for working mothers vary wildly, but the TFR is consistently low.
Myrskyla suggests “adaptation” is a likely better policy response than Japan’s 30 years of trying to increase births — investing in education, keeping people in jobs for longer, and integrating women and immigrants to top up the workforce. In recent years, Japan’s policy mix has also gradually come to focus not on changing people’s minds about marriage or kids, but helping those who lack opportunities — holding events for rural communities to meet potential partners, or the recent addition to health insurance coverage of expensive IVF treatments.
Perhaps the one thing that unites countries with low TFR is that they tend to be wealthy, even if wealthy countries don’t necessarily have below-replacement levels. Although Japan frets about how rich it truly is, it’s still a very wealthy nation in per-capita GDP terms. Many are surprised to learn that the US has a persistently low fertility rate of just 1.66. A Japanese saying describes a problem that is someone else’s issue as a “fire on the other side of the river.” When it comes to population, Japan’s struggles are anything but.
*Worryingly, the next such year, known as hinoe-uma, will occur in 2026.