Photo/IllutrationJapan’s fertility rate stood at 1.42 in 2018, marking the third straight year of decline. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan’s total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman is expected to give birth to in her lifetime, was 1.42 in 2018, down 0.01 point from the previous year.

It was the third consecutive annual decline.

In September 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House for a snap election, describing the combination of the aging society and declining birthrate in Japan as a “national crisis.”

The continued shrinking rate indicates a failure of government policies implemented to attain the “desired fertility rate of 1.8” by enabling all couples to have as many children as they wish to have.

Where did policy shortcomings lie? Was there a gap between what the government offered and what the public really needs?

A thorough examination of the priorities and the policies themselves would be in order to ensure their efficacy.

After Japan’s fertility rate plummeted to 1.26 in 2005, it climbed back to 1.45 in 2015, thanks to a combination of economic recovery and improvements in day-care services. But after 2015, the numbers began shrinking again, and people’s tendency to marry and start families late has remained unchanged to this day.

Urgent action is needed to establish an environment where young people, who are hesitant about marrying and having children, can receive the support they need to keep working.

One form of assistance for young people being pushed by the Abe administration for the first time is free day care or kindergarten for children aged 3 to 5. The program is scheduled for implementation in October, but there are still many wrinkles that must be ironed out.

It is a fact that economic constraints make many young people think twice about marrying and starting a family. But licensed day-care centers charge sliding-scale fees based on income, meaning that people with relatively high incomes will stand to gain the most from the free service program.

This can hardly be considered an effective support program for young people who are struggling financially, given that less than 10 percent of the people in their 20s and 30s who earn a low annual income of below 3 million yen ($27,900) are married.

In fact, the most pressing need voiced by parents of young children today is for “immediate openings at day-care facilities,” not free services.

What these people desperately need is a guarantee that every child will be taken care of while their parents are at work.

France and Sweden, which have raised their respective fertility rates, are known for their advanced child-care services and generous support programs for households with children, as well as for vigorously encouraging working men to take parenting leaves.

In sharp contrast, only about 6 percent of men in Japan take such leaves, few of which are of sufficient length anyway. The nation’s corporate environment itself must change if Japan is to become a society where men can be expected to share their fair burden of parenting as a matter of course.

As part of its work-style reform policy, the Abe administration is trying to shorten Japan’s working hours that are abnormally long in the advanced world. New rules to regulate overtime work came into effect in April, and offenders are liable to be penalized.

However, the overtime work limit is only barely below the “karoshi” (death from overwork) level designated by labor authorities. To realize greater work-life harmony at more places of employment, the government must take much firmer measures.

And although there still is no end to ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers spouting the anachronistic nonsense that women should bear children “for the good of the nation” and that women alone should be responsible for raising children, it is definitely time to banish that sort of mentality for good.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 25