Japan's Child Population Falls to Record Low

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Japan's declining birthrate is starkly illustrated by new government data showing that the proportion of children to the overall population has fallen to record lows.

Children under 15 now comprise only 14.1 percent of Japan's population, according to government statistics. U.N. figures show that to be the smallest percentage of children in any country worldwide.

By contrast, the figure for the U.S. is 21 percent, while many developing countries in Africa and elsewhere record a percentage in the 40s.

The world average is 31 percent and the Asia-Pacific average is 29, according to the U.N.'s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

In Japan, which celebrated Children's Day on Monday, figures released by the Home Affairs Ministry showed the number of children under 15 has dropped for the 22\super nd\nosupersub consecutive year.

In the 1950s, Japanese women had an average of 3.65 children each. Now the figure is 1.33.

On the other end of the scale, Japan's population continues to age, with the proportion of people older than 65 now standing at 18.5 percent. The Asia-Pacific average for over 65s is just six percent.

The U.N.'s Population Division has warned that the "graying" of the population will overtax affected countries' pension funds, health care facilities and social security systems.

The Japanese government is already spending one-fifth of its overall expenditure on social security, and the figure continues to rise, according to the finance ministry.

Tokyo has considered a range of steps in recent years to address the declining birth rate, including offering more generous parental leave and setting up local committees to help parents with child-rearing advice and support.

Last August, Japan's health ministry asked for a sizeable budget boost to establish a program aimed exclusively at increasing the country's declining birthrate.

Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi also recommended that the government subsidize in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, to encourage infertile couples to have children.

In many countries, the Catholic Church spearheads opposition to abortion, contraception and other practices that impact the size of families.

'Lost moorings'

Several years ago, the late Catholic Archbishop of Nagasaki, Francis Xavier Shimamoto, was quoted as saying that members of his congregation had, on average, twice the number of children as the average Japanese.

But with only about 370,000 Catholics among Japan's 127 million people, the impact the church is able to have is limited.

Fr. William Grimm, an American priest who is editor of the Catholic Weekly in Japan, said from Tokyo Tuesday that Catholics in that country were not really able to have much more impact on Japanese society than "Hare Krishnas in Dublin."

Among the flock, however, it was his impression that families were larger than in the wider Japanese society.

Grimm, who hails from the Bronx and has spent 18 of the past 30 years in Japan, said the country had "lost its moorings in many ways" over the past decade.

For many years after World War II, the race was on to catch up to the U.S., but with the economic crises of the 1990s, "suddenly that all fell apart, and knocked their foundations."

"The one god they had has failed them, and they haven't found any other to replace it," he said.

With the economy "fraying around the edges," many people were less willing to invest in the future, and so less likely to want to have children.

Grimm said another factor in the declining birthrate was the growing tendency of young Japanese women to put off marriage.

Young women were much less conservative than they used to be, and many chose to "have a good time without marriage."

Japanese women traditionally stay at home until they marry. By not marrying, he said, they save considerably on living expenses, allowing them to spend their money instead on "conspicuous consumption."

Abortion, meanwhile, is so prevalent it's "almost taken for granted."

Opinion surveys show that abortion - which was legalized in 1948, earlier than in most countries - is widely accepted in Japanese society, and the number of women under 25 having abortions has risen from 18 percent in the late-1970s to 30 percent in the mid-1990s.

Concerns about a falling birthrate have long focused on the developed world, and especially Europe, where countries like Italy, Spain and Germany are among the most seriously affected.

But according to ESCAP, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region is especially worrying, as many countries don't have adequate social welfare programs, and may see social turmoil in the future as populations age and there are fewer young people to look after the elderly.

In most countries in the region, the proportion of the population aged 65 or more is expected to more than double between 1995 and 2050, ESCAP says.

In a study published in Nature magazine in August 2001, U.S. and European experts said that, using improved forecasting methods, there was about an 85 percent chance the world's population would stop growing before the end of this century.

See also:
Population Trends Pose Major Risks For Stability In Japan, Elsewhere (May 24, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow