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Childbirths fall to record lows in Japan, S. Korea

By JIANG XUEQING in Tokyo | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-29 09:49
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A woman pushing her baby in a stroller shops in the Hongdae area of Seoul, South Korea, June 29, 2016. [Photo/Agencies]

Japan last year had the lowest number of births since record-keeping began, following the trend of its neighbor South Korea, where the fertility rate is already the world's lowest.

The health ministry announced on Tuesday that Japan saw a total of 758,631 births last year, a 5.1 percent decrease from 2022, continuing a downward trend for the eighth consecutive year.

The decline has come much earlier than anticipated, surpassing forecasts by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, which projected births falling below 760,000 in 2035.

Analysts attribute the rapid decrease in newborns to trends such as delayed marriages.

The number of marriages also hit its lowest level last year since the end of World War II, dropping to 489,281 unions, while divorces increased to 187,798.

Kanako Amano, a senior researcher at the NLI Research Institute, highlighted the correlation between declining marriages and birthrates in an interview with Kyodo News.

Amano emphasized the need for governmental intervention through labor reforms, including measures to boost wages in rural areas and address gender disparities, to encourage marriage.

The Japanese government is preparing legislative measures, including initiatives to enhance child allowances, for the current parliamentary session.

Additionally, the government also plans to require companies with more than 100 employees to establish and disclose targets for paternity leave uptake starting in April 2025. This move aims to promote fathers' participation in child care, enabling parents to balance work and family duties more effectively.

Experts underscore the importance of paternity leave in redistributing household responsibilities and supporting women's workforce participation, key factors in encouraging higher birthrates in Japan.

Downward trend

Neighboring South Korea is also grappling with the issue, as the country's fertility rate, already the world's lowest, continued its dramatic decline last year.

The average number of expected babies for a South Korean woman during her reproductive life fell to a record low of 0.72 from 0.78 in 2022, data from Statistics Korea showed on Wednesday.

That is far below the rate of 2.1 per woman needed for a steady population and well behind the rate of 1.24 in 2015 when concerns about issues such as the cost of housing and education were lower.

Since 2018, South Korea has been the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member with a rate below 1, defying the billions of dollars spent by the country to try to reverse the trend that led the population to decline for a fourth straight year in 2023.

South Korea had previously projected its fertility rate is likely to fall further to 0.68 this year. Its capital Seoul, which has the country's highest housing costs, had the lowest fertility rate of 0.55 last year.

The government has spent vast amounts on trying to encourage more babies, offering cash subsidies, babysitting services and support for infertility treatment. But the birthrate has continued its chronic decline.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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