Photo/Illutration A mother with her four-day-old baby, wearing a face shield (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The number of births in Japan plummeted to its lowest level on record in 2020 as the novel coronavirus pandemic accelerated, data released by the health ministry on June 4 showed.

The number of marriages also fell 12.3 percent from 2019, a sign that births in future years will continue to decline at a steep pace.

A total of 840,832 babies were born in Japan in 2020, a decrease of 24,407, or 2.8 percent, over 2019.

The nation's births have now decreased for five straight years.

In 2019, births fell to 865,239, considered shocking at the time as it was the first time they had been under 900,000.

A 2017 estimate by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS) had the number of births falling under 850,000 in 2023, but Japan reached that level three years ahead of the projection.

The fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman is expected to give birth to in her lifetime, dropped to 1.34 in 2020, down 0.02 point from 2019, falling for the fifth straight year.

Tokyo had the lowest fertility rate of 1.13, while Okinawa Prefecture had the highest rate at 1.86.

The government in May 2020 revised its guidelines for dealing with the shrinking population and set a goal of reaching 1.8 percent for the “desired birthrate,” or the rate expected if young people who intended to marry and have children were able to do so. But the latest fertility rate falls far short of that goal.

The number of marriages in 2020 was the lowest since the end of World War II and plunged to 525,490 couples, a decrease of 73,517 over the previous year.

As the trend has continued in Japan for fewer people to get married, births have also fallen.

Health ministry officials said the low marriage number was a reaction to the large number of marriages in 2019 which was the first year of the Reiwa Era, but experts also believe the novel coronavirus pandemic played a role.

Divorces and deaths dropped during 2020. A total of 193,251 divorces occurred in the year, a decrease of 15,245 over 2019 and the number of deaths declined for the 11th straight year to reach 1,372,648.

The number of deaths attributed to pneumonia fell by 17,073, a sign that novel coronavirus infection prevention measures also helped prevent people from catching other viruses.

The natural population decline of 531,816, calculated by deducting the number of births from the number of deaths, in 2020, was the largest ever.

Takumi Fujinami, a senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute, has estimated that the number of births in 2021 will fall to about 797,000. That would be nine years earlier than the IPSS estimate that had the figure falling under 800,000 in 2030.

A declining birthrate and graying of the population are expected to greatly rattle the nation’s social security structure.