The Platform

John Lyman

The Japanese have been trying, they have been trying for years, but they can’t seem to get to the bottom of their infertility problem, continuing to lose children and wealth. Since 1991, the country has been planning and investing in policies to combat this issue, but the results have been nowhere near what anyone hoped for.

Over the years, the phenomenon has worsened: not only do people not want to have children, they don’t want to get married. And if they do marry, they do so too late. Making this problem even worse is the fact that the Japanese social system is based on the family as a safety net, which means that a drop in the fertility rate translates into losses in economic and social terms.

The government, in trying to tackle the problem, has mainly taken three types of initiatives: “Angel Plan,” “Childcare Leave Law” and “Children Plus One.” Each of them was naturally aimed to provide childcare support, subsidies and implement a parental leave system. The basic idea was to provide support and security for young married couples to persuade them to have children. But the government’s efforts have not paid off, and this is perfectly illustrated by the fact that, although the number of places in the nurseries has increased, the rate of children on the waiting list has also risen. This suggests one thing: demand for childcare services is growing faster than supply.

Understanding where the problem lies is not easy, but a successful case study might be useful. France is a champion in this field, with one of the highest fertility rates in the European Union. Having adopted its policies to support parenthood decades ago, they have had the opportunity to make corrections and improvements. They have therefore shifted the focus to more family- and work-friendly solutions, trying to make it easier for spouses to juggle work and family. In terms of funding, France spares no expense, investing more than 3% of GDP to provide its citizens with parental leave, childcare, and subsidies.

So, what can the Japanese learn from this? The key to success seems to lie in diversifying the support given to families, which cannot only consist of monetary aid, but must also increase the time available for childcare and the number of support services. With appropriate and well-balanced public policies, it is possible to maintain a high and stable birth rate.

The challenges that Japan is facing are partly of a different nature from those in other countries and therefore require different measures. It is no longer just a question of creating the most favourable conditions for couples to reconcile family and work.

Beneath the decline in fertility lies another fact: 45% of Japanese women aged 16 to 24 and more than 25% of men “are not interested in or do not enjoy sexual contact.” One of the reasons for this is the advancement of women in the workplace. In fact, although there has been progress in terms of work, this has not been coupled with progress in cultural norms, leading to a growing number of women making a choice between family and work. Furthermore, a deficiency in education is another reason for the scarce knowledge of fertility: Japanese women are not fully aware that as they get older their fertility rate decreases. Here comes another tip of the iceberg: the Japanese marry late and find out belatedly that they are past their fertility peak, thus triggering what is described as a “a self-feeding loop.”

Let’s not forget the economic element of the choice: the economy and the job market are unstable and maintaining a child is expensive, so that the one-child policy can sometimes be self-imposed. It is therefore clear why the government’s policies are unsuitable: they are designed to help married couples, even though the problem is that couples no longer marry or do so too late.

The problems to tackle, however, are not only cultural and economic but also financial. Indeed, it can be seen that, although investments have increased in recent years, they are still totally inadequate. With an under 2% GDP allocation the Japanese could have adequate interventions, but the resources will always be insufficient for the effectiveness of the policies.

Therefore, the most basic recipe is simple: more funds and mutually complementary manoeuvres are needed to change views on marriage and parenthood.

But the complexity of the problem means that the basic recipe is no longer sufficient. To find a solution, I would propose to the Japanese government the following principles: Transform Japan into a more child-friendly country through the creation of a family-oriented society and not by simply aiming to increase the fertility rate; incorporate fertility into all policies, thus implementing a long-term programme of complementary and coordinated approaches; facilitate the use of assisted reproductive technologies; increase public spending on these interventions; and, consider the issue of fertility as a long-term investment, and not just for economic growth.

If Japan really wants to aim for a fertility rate of 1.8, it will have to work harder and more efficiently. Otherwise, the progress expected since the 1990s will never be seen. By implementing appropriate and balanced public policies, it will be possible to maintain a high birth rate, thus combating the ineffectiveness of the interventions adopted so far. If Japan persists with the same policies, it will continue to pay the economic and social price and thus lose on all fronts.

Matilde Dani is a Master's student at the European University Institute studying Transnational Governance. Matilde graduated with honours in International and Diplomatic Sciences from the University of Bologna.