Japan’s fertility rate in 2012 rose for the first time in two years, but the slight change will have little immediate impact on a nation long plagued by a shrinking and aging population.
The fertility rate–the number of children a woman would give birth to in her lifetime–was 1.41, up 0.02 point from 2011, according to a report released by the health ministry on June 5.
The rate in 2011 was the same as that of the previous year.
The latest fertility rate is still way below the 2.07 needed to keep the population from shrinking, and it is unclear whether the rate will continue to recover.
In addition, the number of births in 2012 was down 13,705 from the previous year, dropping to 1,037,101, the lowest since 1899.
Japan’s fertility rate began to fall in the late 1970s, plunging to a record low 1.26 in 2005. But the rate started to rise slowly after 2005, partly because an increasing number of “second-generation baby boomers,” now in their 30s, are having babies.
The birthrate among women in their 30s or older rose in 2012, whereas the rate among women under 30 dropped, the report showed.
The report said the trend has continued for Japanese to wait longer to marry and have babies.
The average first-marriage age of men and women in 2012 was 30.8 and 29.2, respectively, and the mean age at which women had their first child was 30.3. These figures were the highest on record.
The number of deaths in 2012 rose by 3,188 from the previous year to 1,256,254, reflecting the aging of Japanese society.
A natural population decline of 219,153, calculated by deducting the number of births from the number of deaths, was seen in 2012.
Experts said the government will need to take a wider range of countermeasures against the declining birthrate, including improved employment conditions for young people, to prevent a rapid fall in the population.
“Measures to support families with small children have taken effect to some extent,” said Shigeki Matsuda, a family sociology professor at Chukyo University. “But the key factor for this low birthrate is that an increasing number of young people, especially part-time and temporary employees, find difficulty getting married.
“Unless (the government) stabilizes employment for the younger generation and creates better conditions for young people to marry, give birth to babies and raise their children, the fertility rate will not improve.”
Forecasts for Japan’s population for the coming 50 years, released in January 2012 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, indicate that a continuous decline in population is inevitable.
The institute said it believes the fertility rate will start falling again in the near future before stabilizing around the 1.35 range–still well below 2.07–over the long term.
A variety of social distortions could arise if the dwindling birthrate and the aging population alter the demographic structure.
For example, the young, working generation will have to bear a heavier tax burden, and elderly citizens will receive smaller pension payments to allow the government to maintain the pension program and the medical insurance system.
A decreasing number of working people will also create a drag on the economy.
“It is necessary to give serious consideration to how Japan should revise its conventional social security system that is based on the assumption that the population will continue to increase,” said Masako Maeda, a social security policy professor at Konan University in Kobe.
To encourage couples to have babies, the government has distributed cash to families with small children through its monthly child-care allowance and has been attempting to increase the number of nursery schools.
The Abe administration has also put priority on how to lift the birthrate, saying it will take measures to allow mothers to keep working while raising their children. The government also plans to increase the number of nursery schools and extend parental leave by up to three years.