Photo/Illutration The government building in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district housing the health ministry (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The pace at which births in Japan is declining has accelerated well beyond past government projections, further dimming the goal of maintaining the population. 

According to population figures released June 3 by the health ministry, 811,604 births were recorded in 2021, the lowest figure on record and the sixth consecutive year of decreases in births.

The number of births fell below 815,000 six years earlier than a projection made in 2017 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS).

The IPSS made three projections, with the one used by the government predicting 869,000 births in 2021. The pessimistic projection had births in 2021 at 756,000. The actual figure fell between those two projections. But the government projection was that births would fall under 815,000 in 2027.

A related projection had the total population of Japan falling under 100 million in 2049, but at current rates, the population will likely sink under 100 million earlier as well.

The fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman is expected to give birth to in her lifetime, dropped to 1.3 in 2021, down 0.03 point from 2020, falling for the sixth straight year.

A fertility rate of 2.07 is needed to maintain the population. But the latest figure not only falls below that rate, but also under the 1.8 percent “desired birthrate” set as a goal by the government. The rate was the expected one if young people who intended to marry and have children were able to do so.

Tokyo had the lowest fertility rate of 1.08, followed by Miyagi Prefecture at 1.15 and Hokkaido at 1.20. Okinawa Prefecture had the highest rate at 1.80 followed by two other southern prefectures, Kagoshima at 1.65 and Miyazaki at 1.64.

There were 1,439,809 deaths in 2021, the highest number after World War II. Cancer was the leading cause of death at 381,497, followed by heart illnesses at 214,623 and natural causes due to aging at 152,024.

The health ministry also said there were 16,756 deaths attributable to COVID-19. The number of such deaths per 100,000 residents came to 31.1 in Osaka Prefecture, 26.8 in Hyogo Prefecture and 26 in Okinawa.

The natural population decline of 628,205, calculated by deducting the number of births from the number of deaths, in 2021 was the largest ever.

That decline surpasses the total population of Tottori Prefecture at about 540,000.

Marriages declined for the second straight year to 501,116, the lowest figure after World War II.