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Japan gets to grips with population woes

Publication Date : 03-06-2014


With the past government's efforts to raise Japan's low fertility rate having had little effect, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking a new approach that goes beyond incentives like childcare assistance.

The government is to set up a comprehensive strategic task force headed by the premier himself that will get all branches of the central government to work together, and also with the local authorities, to tackle the issue from the ground up.

The establishment of the task force will be included in the government's basic economic and fiscal policy outline to be unveiled towards the end of this month, say reports.

It will be the first time that population issues are included in such a policy outline. The task force itself is likely to be set up next month.

This comes as Japan's fertility rate rose only slightly to 1.41 in 2012, up 0.02 point from a year earlier and still far below the 2.07 needed to maintain a country's population.

Japan also faces the problem of population decline in smaller cities as young people move to the capital Tokyo and other bigger cities in search of jobs and a better life.

Abe's new comprehensive approach will aim to solve both the problem of a lack of babies nationwide and that of falling population in smaller cities.

The government aims to make smaller cities attractive to young couples by creating jobs and providing housing, shopping malls, creches and other social infrastructure to support young families.

This, it hopes, will encourage young people to remain in such cities to work, marry and have children, and persuade more mothers to remain in the workforce.

"For women, it should not be a case of deciding whether to work or to have children. Women should be able to do both without making such a great effort," said Akira Amari, minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, last Saturday.

Until now, each ministry has tackled the low fertility problem on its own.

Policies also tended to get reset each time there is a change of administration.

But Japan's low fertility rate cannot be blamed entirely on the government as maternity and child-rearing handouts are quite generous.

Japan spends the equivalent of almost 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on pre-natal checkups for expectant mothers, bonuses for new mothers, free medical care for young children and monthly allowances for families with kids.

Still, experts have recommended that the budget be doubled.

The government, while continuing to build nurseries for infants and young children, is unable to cope with demand.

Meanwhile, the government has tried to cajole employers into offering more generous maternity leave for new mothers and childcare leave for new fathers.

But with most employers reluctant to embrace working mothers, Japanese women often find it hard to return to work after having children.

The government's long-term target, however, is not to keep Japan's population at the present level of 127 million, or even to raise it.

Given that the population will continue to slide until the fertility rate is vastly improved, a government advisory panel has suggested that Japan should strive to maintain a population of about 100 million in 50 years' time. If nothing is done, the population could fall to 87 million by 2060.

To make up for the population shrinkage and rapid ageing, some experts have suggested allowing up to 200,000 foreign workers a year into the country.

But most politicians remain opposed to the idea.

Prime Minister Abe himself favours using women and older Japanese workers to plug the gap in labour demand.

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