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Japan's chronically low birthrate can’t be fixed without bold, genuine effort

Publication Date : 15-05-2014

 

If Japan is serious about maintaining the dynamism of its economy and society, stemming the nation’s rapid population decrease is an absolute necessity. The government must demonstrate its leadership and launch a full-scale operation to tackle this problem now.

The Committee for Japan’s Future, an expert panel under the wing of the government’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, recently came up with a proposal on addressing the nation’s population decrease and super graying society.

The focal point of the panel’s proposal is setting a target population level of 100 million in Japan 50 years from now. The government has been reluctant to set explicit targets for population or birthrate due to persistent criticism that doing so would interfere with the freedom of people to choose their own lifestyle.

However, if the population continues to shrink, it will undermine the foundation of the economy, and the government will find it difficult to maintain the nation’s social security system. It was appropriate for the panel to set a specific target for stemming the population decrease, and for them to urge the government to work on achieving the target.

Japan’s fertility rate has long hovered around 1.4. If the figure continues to stagnate, Japan’s population is expected to plunge over the next 50 years to 87 million, about two-thirds of the current population.

Data have indicated that couples in Japan would like to have 2.4 children on average. The gap between this figure and the fertility rate indicates that many people give up on marrying or having children due to financial difficulties and other pressures.

The expert panel points out the importance of furnishing a better environment for couples to have and raise children, such as calls for improved working conditions for nonregular employees and better support for households with many children. We wish to express our support for the panel’s proposal.

Shift budgetary focus

A key point of contention is how to secure the revenue needed to implement the panel’s ideas. The proposal suggests that the government boldly shift its focus for budgetary allocation away from programmes related to the elderly and toward those associated with children, and double the funding to support couples in having and raising children. We believe this is a realistic approach, considering the government’s severe fiscal restraints.

It is important for the government to continue to make efforts to curb ballooning medical and nursing care costs by asking older citizens to bear a greater share of expense, in accordance with their ability to pay. We also urge the government to reinforce measures to promote preventive medicine, including programmes to help older people improve their dietary and fitness habits. Greater taxation of pensions is another issue the government needs to tackle.

Another point worthy of note in the panel’s proposal is its analysis of the population decrease. The panel pointed out that the flow of population from rural areas to Tokyo and its vicinity is accelerating the decline in population. The birthrate in the greater Tokyo area is especially low due to a variety of challenges, including high rents and lack of day care facilities.

A subcommittee of the Japan Policy Council, a private-sector group of experts, recently released a forecast that 896 cities, wards, towns and villages—roughly half of the nation’s municipalities—will be on the verge of “dissolution” by the end of 2040 due to the outflow of people toward Tokyo.

The government must act to rejuvenate the nation outside the major urban centers. For example, the government could provide preferential tax treatment to persuade companies to relocate their headquarters in provincial areas, which would increase employment in the main cities of these areas.

It should also join hands with these cities as well as surrounding towns and villages so that the positive impact of such moves spread throughout the region. We urge the central government to use such efforts to encourage younger generations to build their lives in their hometowns.

 

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