December 16, 2005

Population fall makes Japan birthrate urgent issue

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's population will shrink by half in
less than a century unless something is done to reverse the
country's falling birthrate, the government said in a white
paper issued on Friday.

The process could start as early as next year.

Deaths exceeded births in Japan by 31,034 in the first half
of 2005, raising the possibility that the population will start
to decrease in 2006, a year earlier than previously predicted
and a trend that could severely hurt Japan's global

"If the current low birthrate continues, the population in
2100 is likely to fall to roughly half of what it is today,"
the white paper said.

Japan's fertility rate -- the average number of children a
woman bears in her lifetime -- fell to 1.288 in 2004 from
1.2905 in 2003, marking a postwar low.

Japan's baby shortage has become an urgent problem for
policy makers, who once dealt delicately with the issue for
fear of echoing nationalist wartime efforts to boost the

Noting that countries such as France have managed to
increase their birthrates, the white paper said their policies
must be used as a guide and applied, where possible, in Japan.

"Compared with nations that have recently boosted their
birthrates, such as France and Sweden, we cannot say that our
nation's policies are really sufficient," it said.

A survey in March found that 69.9 percent of women
respondents felt that economic support, such as help with
daycare or medical fees and cash allowances for each child, was

"There are women close to me who work and have children,
and I see how hard it is for them, how expensive daycare is,"
said Yumi Ota, a 38-year-old office worker.

Increasing the number of daycare facilities was a distant
second at 39.1 percent.

"We can clearly see from this that economic needs are high,
but compared with some European nations, the offerings of our
nation are limited," the white paper said.


Some sociologists, however, said that while extra financial
support -- difficult to come by in an era of tight budgets --
was important, more fundamental lifestyle changes were needed.

"I am very frustrated that politicians are always talking
only about child allowances and not about services," said
Mariko Bando, vice president of Showa Women's University and
former head of the government's gender equality office.

"We need more daycare services, longer childcare leave, and
more after-school programs for children who are already in
primary school."

Others said the most important thing was improving the
overall work situation.

"People don't work overtime as much overseas," said social
commentator Keiko Higuchi. "Also, France makes sure educated
women have a place to work even after they have children.

"Japanese businesses, on the other hand, still make it
difficult for a woman to both work and have children. It's a
huge waste of a national resource."

Reasons cited for the falling birthrate include such
often-cited factors as higher education levels, a shift to
later marriage, the cost of raising children and the burden on
working women given a shortage of daycare options.

The white paper also noted that the growing number of what
are known as "NEETS" -- young people not in employment,
education or training -- and those who switch from one casual
job to another was also having an impact by delaying marriage.

"I personally feel that before I can really have a child, I
would need to save up some money so I can take care of it,"
said Keijiro Odaka, a 27-year-old office worker.

The white paper made no mention of what some experts say
may be an unavoidable solution -- more immigration.

Concern about crimes committed by foreigners has been
growing in Japan, making many people wary of welcoming large
numbers of foreign residents.

(Additional reporting by Takanori Isshiki)