This article focuses on the decline in Japan's birth rates, a crucial matter in recent years, and how COVID-19 has impacted the situation.
When one is asked to think of a major issue in our current society, the fall in birthrates is a common answer. In fact, here in Japan, it may be one of the most significant concerns that can dramatically impact our future lives.
Japan is well-known to have the highest life expectancy in the world, with the average age being 86 years. However, there are only approximately 1.4 births per woman (as of 2020). Moreover, last year, the number of babies born within the country was around 865,000, marking a record low since documenting began in 1899.
This issue –not in Japan but in numerous other nations around the world– has been a major focus of researchers. However, just as the Japanese government began to take specific measures to mitigate this difficulty, the COVID-19 pandemic surged the world. Although some contend that these new circumstances are and could help with the decreasing birth rates in Japan, most claim that it has only caused negative effects.
“If the outbreak does not come under control, I'm scared of getting pregnant,” says Eri, a thirty-six-year-old female social worker in Japan. Just recently in March, she experienced a miscarriage and has already started her fourth in-vitro fertilization (IVF) again; however, doctors say that there has been a sharp decrease and pauses in IVFs after the pandemic outbreak. While this form of conception may sound uncommon, according to The Straits Times, one in sixteen babies are conceived through it in Japan. Not only are women who need to or prefer conceiving children in this specific way concerned about pregnancy during this pandemic, but other women are as well. Many have additional concerns, including the impacts contracting the virus could have on their babies and the safety of going to maternity hospitals for scheduled check-ups. This evidently proves how the pandemic has exacerbated the already declining birth rates in Japan.
On the other hand, while most believe that the COVID-19 outbreak has only provoked negative influences on the declining birth rates in Japan, some say otherwise. Masakazu Kato, a professor of economics at Meiji University says that the recent pandemic cannot “change [the] population decline in the short term,” and that instead, “it will take 50 to 60 years to change Japan’s fate.” As a matter of fact, he believes that the new “work-style reforms” that the pandemic has induced can have a positive effect on the country’s population and birth rate. In the past, Japan has been recognized for having a rather strict and inflexible working environment, adhering to the tradition of face-to-face communication and utilizing old-fashioned systems such as FAX. In addition, due to the conservative perspective that men work to “feed” the family while women do the housework, Japan’s economy occasionally forces women to choose between their career and having children. As a matter of fact, according to research conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, as of 2001, 70% of female workers who were employed became unemployed six months after giving birth. As a primary reason for quitting their jobs, 32.8% stated that they would not be able to balance work and child-care, and 17.9% claimed that their workplace or government’s childcare support systems were difficult to use or were nonexistent. However, due to the pandemic, teleworking (remote working) has become more common, resulting in working environments gaining more flexibility. Kato states that this can make younger adults feel more comfortable with having children. While this may be true to some extent, researchers have discovered that after the State of Emergency was lifted in May last year, face-to-face working increased and telework rates significantly fell once again. This shows that the pandemic’s secondary impacts on the decreasing birth rates of Japan were slightly unfavorable.
As this crucial issue continues to bother Japanese society, it is evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. Demographers predict that by 2065, Japan’s population could decrease from 127 million to 88 million. Additionally, they claim that by that year, the number of women of childbearing age will be merely 14 million. Not long ago, the Japanese government announced new measures with the aim of increasing birth rates, such as advocating child leave, expanding childcare support and facilities, and providing financial assistance for infertility treatments. In the near future, not only will these proposals become widely considered, but with the large proportion of elderly citizens in the whole population, the government’s further actions will be something to look out for.
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