The latest numbers on Japan's population trend make for dismal reading — the number of people who died in 2022 (1.56 million) was roughly twice as high as the number of births (771,000). Based on residency registrations, the country's Internal Ministry estimates a total population loss of some 800,000 last year. That is the largest total drop in population since comparable statistics were first collated in 1968.
Japan now has 122.4 million nationals, down from a peak of over 128 million some 15 years ago.
But the issue of Japan's shrinking population is not a recent phenomenon. Since the 1990s, successive Japanese governments have been aware that the population would start to decline and tried to offer solutions. And yet, the speed of the contraction has caught even the experts by surprise. In 2017, for example, the Tokyo-based National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecast that the annual number of births would not fall below the 800,000 threshold until 2030.
With the news of Japan's population decline growing ever more grim, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced a series of efforts to encourage more people to have children.
Japan 'on the brink'
In January, Kishida warned that the nation was "on the brink" of a crisis and that his government would spend around 20 trillion yen (roughly €128 billion, $140 billion) on measures to support young couples who wish to have more children. This corresponds to around 4% of Japan's GDP, and is nearly double the amount the government had earmarked for the same goal in fiscal year 2021.
The prime minister also set up a panel to devise ways to spend the extra funds. In late July, he hosted an event in Tokyo to mark the launch of a nationwide campaign to support children and families.
The government has agreed to increase child allowances and put in additional effort to eradicate child poverty and abuse. New fathers will also be encouraged to take paternity leave and additional funding will go toward pre-school facilities so that working parents are able to return to work. Parents will get greater tax breaks, too.
Kishida said he aims to win society's support for children and parents.
"We hope that a social circle friendly to child-rearing will spread nationwide," he said at the launch event.
Critics, however, are not entirely convinced by the latest proposals. They warn that the previous government had also tried to use spending to encourage a baby boom, but Japanese society has failed to respond.
Japan's population is rapidly aging and the number of people over 65 is already at close to 30%. Japan's neighbors China and South Korea are facing similar troubles, and the number of senior citizens is expected to continue climbing over the next three decades.
Will funding be effective?
"The government is focusing very much on the economic aspect, and while the budget they are allocating to the problem is very large and it sounds positive, we will have to see whether it can truly be effective," said Masataka Nakagawa, senior researcher with the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
Nakagawa agreed that the latest population statistics were worrying but warned there are other factors that need to be considered, such as the falling number of marriages. People in Japan are typically getting married later in life and opting to have fewer children, primarily a result of financial pressures, he said.
Chisato Kitanaka, an associate professor of sociology at Hiroshima University, said governments have failed to devise effective policies to solve the population problem, despite knowing that a decline was inevitable.
"There have long been a lot of hurdles for young people who want to have children," she told DW. Those include financial and educational concerns, she said, but arguably the biggest problem is social attitudes.
"In Japan, having a child means that a couple has to get married," she said. "Only 2% of children are born out of wedlock in Japan, but other countries take a far more 'flexible' approach to the concept of a family."
"This is what is considered socially acceptable here and that makes raising a child as a single mother difficult," she added, "because she has to work and earn money, while at the same time she is singled out by society."
More foreigners in Japan
Kitanaka believes the government should dramatically increase welfare payments to families to help them raise their children and reduce the substantial costs of education, particularly at the tertiary level.
While looking into the population statistics, Japanese officials also found that nearly 3 million foreign residents were living in Japan, up by more than 289,000 — or over 10% — from the previous year. The increase puts the number of foreigners in the Asian country at a record high.
And yet, many Japanese are unwilling to seriously contemplate large-scale immigration as a way to solve the country's population problem and provide a stable supply of workers.
"It is difficult," Kitanaka admitted. "There are clearly more foreign residents in Japan now but we as a society are not really thinking about it as a long-term issue. And there are many in Japan who are still not ready to accept foreigners. We need to discuss the sort of Japan that we want to live in for the future."
Edited by: Darko Janjevic