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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Making Japanese Babies Great Again

Babies in Japan

Back in March, I posted an article about Japan’s declining birthrate, identifying the nation’s key demographic concern and offering the kind of random suggestions that you might expect from an old guy past his child-rearing prime. When I uploaded that missive, I had not yet encountered Birthgap, a documentary that is must-viewing for anyone concerned about the impact of population decline in Japan and beyond.

Stephen J. Shaw, the film’s creator and key researcher—and a fellow Tokyo-area resident—examines why nations are experiencing birthrates in freefall. The prevailing wisdom is that families are having fewer children on average, and that this change from larger families to smaller ones is driving this demographic trend. But by looking at the actual data—what a novel concept—Shaw found that the root cause was a significant increase in the number of women (or “birthing people” for all you controversy-loving wokesters out there) having no children at all. Through first-hand interviews conducted in twenty-four nations across the globe, the movie reveals that many families who hoped to have children someday found that they had waited too long for nature to comply or had encountered other issues that resulted in childlessness.

After marching Lemming-like after the Malthusian party line of overpopulation, countries are now trying to outdo each other in begging their citizens to make more babies, and Japan is right there with them. Anyone who had visited the Japanese countryside over the past two decades already knew that trouble was looming. My wife’s rural hometown is just a shell of its former self, its once bustling main street now nothing more than a quiet pathway leading to the town’s only remaining grocery store. The Japanese government has reached full-panic mode, leading Prime Minister Kishida to make the issue a core element of his annual policy speech in January.

In that presentation, the Prime Minister assured the public that the Cabinet-level Children and Family Affairs Agency (こども家庭庁) would double down on government efforts to reverse population declines. If their online resources are any indication, Japan has a long way to go. The CFA is a multi-pronged agency, and I understand that it has more on its plate than only worrying about twentysomethings having more kids. But given that this birthrate issue is going to trigger tremendous economic and societal turmoil over the next few decades (at least!), you would think that the agency could manage to post something more current than their 2020 report on how to make Japan a “friendly society” for raising children. As far as priorities, the CFA ranks the birthrate issue third on its list, below an entry that seeks to “listen to the opinions of young people” and apply those thoughts to national policy. Just to make it clear, they are referring to eight-year-olds. Yikes!

I don’t have any magic answers about how Japan can overcome its population doldrums. But there are some rules of thumb that governments around the world have used to affect all kinds of societal changes, and Japan really needs to start applying these systems to its shōshi-ka (declining birthrate) issue. Three changes in particular come to mind.

1. Set measurable goals. In his January policy speech, Kishida mentioned how the number of births during the prior year had fallen below 800,000, and he wondered aloud whether it would “be possible to maintain social functions.” Such a statement was based on extrapolating the depressing trends, and governments do need to be realistic about the current and future state of the nation and its people. But when enacting policies that attempt to fix societal issues, those programs must be paired with long-term measurable goals, ones that can be tested and validated at regular intervals. Without such goals, it will be difficult to determine if the policies are working at all, or to hold the government accountable for its decisions, a mandatory responsibility for a sovereign people in whose name the government acts.

Setting goals also implies that the government has established measurable policies. As mentioned above, it is not clear that the Cabinet has done anything of the sort, or at least they haven’t posted such things on their web site. Either the Diet or the Kishida Administration needs to formulate and publish short- and long-term plans for addressing the demographic changes, complete with performance goals that can be measured at least once every ten years over the next half-century.

2. Put the people in charge. Despite its numerous technological breakthroughs, Japan does not yet have a machine that can create new babies. This responsibility falls on families, and because of this, the government must make it clear that this is a job for the public. As a democracy, the Japanese government works in the name of the people and under their authority, so everything it does is ultimately always the public’s responsibility. But in this specific case, the public needs to own the issue and drive the changes that will bring about a solution. All the government can do is throw money at some side support systems, such as funding for childcare and the costs of pregnancy. Such inducements might convince some families who are on the fence about starting a family right now, but those funds will not impact those who put careers above all else or who just want to have fun until they turn forty.

Prime Minister Kishida cannot solve this problem on his own. This level of societal change is only possible if the people believe it, internalize it, and make it part of their daily thought processes. This won’t happen through college tuition subsidies. Instead, the people need to be reminded that this kind of thing was always their responsibility, not the government’s, and that the solution will only come through broad, societal action. Government agencies, public and private schools, businesses small and large, even religious institutions and non-profit agencies can all play a part in communicating the need. But more important than this, young families need to decide to have children even if it will be expensive, tedious, and burdensome. As a parent, I can assure you that raising children is never easy, always a time-suck, and always more expensive than you expect. Ah, but then there are the simple joys of watching a child grow up before your eyes.

3. Teach it in schools now. The kind of change I described above can only come about through education. I mentioned public and private organizations that can help get the message out, but for this specific societal update, schools must take the lead. And it needs to happen soon. Even if the public’s mood turned around today, it would still take decades to stabilize and reverse the current downward trend. If they haven’t started already, school officials need to update their curricula to include content that convinces the youth to get married at a relatively early age and begin thinking about children soon after. I am only half-joking when I say that schools can start by handing out a paper at graduation that reads, “Get married. Have kids. Please!”

These curriculum changes should be implemented by the start of the 2027 school year. That would provide more than three years to design, vet, and publish the changes. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time, and it’s not. But the government already has a Children and Family Affairs Agency, and this is just the kind of project that would justify its Cabinet-level existence. If it helps, I offer this free advice to them: Start with the high school students and work your way down.

Although the CFA’s website is a barren wasteland of birthrate solutions, it is possible that great projects are already in the hopper. I hope so. But even if they design amazing projects, little will change until the public decides on its own to turn the numbers around.

[Image Credits: FineGraphics/]


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