Japan's plan to boost its birthrate raises doubt. But one city has reason for hope
AKASHI, Japan — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised "new dimension" measures to address an existential crisis: his country's plunging birthrate.
Fewer than 800,000 babies were born in Japan last year, the lowest figure since Japan began tallying births in 1899 and the seventh year of declines in a row, according to government data.
Japan's population has been shrinking for over a decade. Yet despite the steady drumbeat of grim numbers, some parts of Japan are bucking the trend. Take the western city of Akashi, whose population has been growing through rising childbirths and migration. Places like Akashi may hold lessons for the rest of the country.
Akashi invests in kids
Facing the turrets of a 17th century castle seen from the windows, children climb jungle gyms, play-cook on toy stoves and peruse shelves of books in one of several clean and brightly lit spaces at a child care center.
"We get generous support for child care and other things, which even makes my friends jealous, so I'm not worried," says Haruka Okamoto, as her daughter plays beside her at the center. "We are building a house in Akashi. It is a town which makes me think I want to live here forever."
Kids in Akashi get free medical care up to age 18 and free school lunches up to 15. Families with two or more children get free nursery school and kindergarten. Babies below age 1 get free diapers, delivered to their homes by midwives — all regardless of income.
While the diapers are helpful to new families, the outreach and advice from child care professionals — a practice adopted from other communities in Japan and elsewhere — is also welcomed.
The policies have attracted young families to Akashi from other cities.
"So many parents are coming that there aren't enough facilities for them all," notes Akashi resident Taiki Chisaka, who is at the child care center with his wife Arisa and son Tatara.
Akashi's population has increased for 10 years in a row, to over 300,000. Women in Akashi had an average of 1.65 kids in 2021, the last year for which figures were available, compared to 1.3 nationwide that year (the national rate has since fallen).
The bigger Akashi's population gets, the more taxes the city collects, and the more services it can provide, which in turn attracts more residents and encourages them to have more kids.
The national plan meets skepticism
On the national level, officials have spoken about the severity of the situation of Japan's aging and shrinking population — and pitch their plan as a last chance to turn things around.
"The period until the early 2030s, when the population of young people is expected to decline sharply, is the last chance to reverse the declining birthrate trend," Prime Minister Kishida said on June 1.
His government plans to double child care spending by the early 2030s, including bigger subsidies for families with kids, more support for higher education and medical care for children with disabilities.
But Kishida has not said where the money will come from to pay for it all. He has pledged he will not raise taxpayers' burden to fund it. He has suggested the government could cover any shortfall in funding by issuing bonds. Funding details are not expected to be finalized until the end of the year, according to news reports.
His inability to explain how the cash-strapped nation will afford these measures, and three decades of previous governments' unsuccessful efforts to increase dwindling births, have contributed to a highly skeptical reception for the plan.
An Asahi Shimbun poll published Monday found 73% of respondents don't think Kishida's measures will halt the falling birthrate.
"I'm worried that Japanese people would prefer to accept a declining birthrate and everyone gradually, equally getting poorer, rather than accepting a big change, which causes some people to lose out," says sociologist Masahiro Yamada at Tokyo's Chuo University.
"The policy announcement made us feel that Japan will never recover from its low birth rate problem," laments Tae Amano, the leader of a civic group that lobbies the government on child care policies.
One of her top recommendations: provide free high school and college education, which 65% of parents surveyed by Amano's group said would motivate them to have more kids.
"We are getting tired of telling this to the government," Amano says. "They never seriously consider what would actually work to solve the low birth rate."
Akashi's most recent mayor figured out a way — and says the government's plan is too slow
Many Akashi residents credit the city's success to Fusaho Izumi, the city's mayor from 2011 until April.
In an interview with NPR in Tokyo, Izumi says he decided to be a politician at age 10.
"I was born into a not very wealthy family, and my younger brother was disabled," he says, "and I always wanted to make Akashi a town that is kind to the vulnerable."
As mayor, Izumi doubled Akashi's child care spending. "I did not believe that population growth was the goal," he explains. "It was just the result of making a city an easy place to live."
Izumi explains that instead of increasing taxes, he paid for the child care budget by cutting spending on public works. He acknowledges, though, this offended some bureaucrats and businessmen.
Last year, he resigned and apologized for making threatening remarks toward assembly members. He says his words were taken out of context.
He insists Akashi's success can be replicated nationwide, but he doesn't think that Prime Minister Kishida's plan is up to the task.
"Unfortunately, I must say that the plan is insufficient, and too slow," he says. "Even if it is fully realized, it will have almost no effect."
Gender inequality remains a factor
Yamada, the sociology professor, says Kishida's plan suffers from the same flaws as those of his predecessors.
"The Japanese government has let this issue go for 30 years, leading to a low birthrate and depopulation," he says. "They did not understand the special character of the culture of Japan and East Asia."
Yamada checks off a number of cultural factors: severe gender inequality, placing much of the burden of child care on women; women's expectations of marrying wealthy men; "parasite single" children, who live with their parents and defer or avoid marriage; and parents so used to affluence that, if their kids can't enjoy an equal or higher standard of living, they prefer not to have them in the first place.
The gender gap in Japan appears to be getting worse. The World Economic Forum showed Japan sliding nine places this year, to 125th out of 146 countries, ranked by gender equality. That's Japan's worst-ever performance, putting it in last place in East Asia.
Workplace culture in Japan also raises costs and risks associated with having children. While workers are entitled to maternity or paternity leave, those who actually take it are often seen as inconsiderate, for increasing the workload of their colleagues, according to civic group leader Amano.
She says another problem is that Japan has yet to agree on prioritizing the birthrate issue. If it fails to do that, she warns, it could undercut other priorities — such as, for example, Japan's ongoing military buildup, which is the country's biggest since World War II.
A big part of the problem, she adds, is that in Japan, "only 25% of households have children. That means the other 75% don't have children. Therefore, for lots of people, this is someone else's problem."
"Sometimes we hear people raising children point out that Japan is unsympathetic to child-rearing," Prime Minister Kishida admitted at a news conference in March. "For example," he said, "people worry of being told that the shouts of children playing in the park are a disturbance to their neighbors."
He pledged to "change the consciousness of society," including that of "companies, men, local communities, the elderly and unmarried people, for whom this issue has not been seen as very relevant until now."
Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Akashi and Tokyo.
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