Unit 03-B: What is the Best Orientation for Measures targeting Low Fertility in Regional Revitalization Policy?

Toshihiko Hara
Department of Design, Sapporo City University

 The announcement in 2014 of a strategy to halt the decline in Japan’s fertility rate and reinvigorate the nation’s regional areas 1) by the Japan Policy Council is still fresh in the public mind. In addition to future population estimates by municipality which focused on the ability to reproduce the population, the announcement was accompanied by a map which showed the estimated population of municipalities throughout the country if there was no change in trends of population migration. The announcement also indicated which of Japan’s regional areas would face a decline of 50% or more in their female population aged 20-39, and suggested the possibility of the “disappearance” of regional municipalities. Following this, the Regional Revitalization Law 2) was passed and the Headquarters for Overcoming the Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan 3) was established. As of 2015, municipalities throughout the country are engaged in the formulation of “regional population visions” and “comprehensive strategies.”

 First, then, will Japan’s regional municipalities actually “disappear”? This projection is based on premises including the assumption that the net migration rate (the rumored net number of individuals migrating) will not change (in fact, in part due to the effect of the aging of the population and the low birth rate, the net migration rate (number of individuals migrating) is already displaying a downward trend) and that there is no consistency between estimates for individual municipalities and estimates for major cities and prefectures or the entire nation (if figures for each individual municipality are totaled, they deviate from figures for major cities and prefectures or the entire nation. Statistically, results become more reliable and stable as the scale of the population increases, and it is therefore necessary to correct for municipalities on this basis). From the perspective of specialists in the field, the projection is rather rough, and overall the estimates for population decline and the rate of aging of the population are excessive in comparison to the estimates of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. In addition, the criterion for judgment of the “possibility of disappearance” of a municipality was that the population of women in the 20-39 age group would decline to less than 50% of the present figure, but the basis for the assumption that the possibility of a community disappearing would increase under these conditions remained vague. If we followed this way of thinking, more than 80% of municipalities in Tohoku and Hokkaido would be headed for disappearance. This represents 49.8% of the total number of municipalities in the entire country. The report later published by the Japan Policy Council 4) indicated that the projection was based exclusively on the naïve assumption that if, over the course of the 30-year period of the estimates, the female population of childbearing age of the initial generation were to decline by 50% (0.5), the population of women of childbearing age in the next generation would be 25% that of the initial generation (0.5 x 0.5), falling to 12.5% in the third generation (0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5). The population of women of childbearing age in the third generation would thus be almost one-tenth the population of the original generation, and there would be no way to halt population decline. Theoretically, however, no matter how much the female population may decline, if the net migration rate (the difference between outflow and inflow) becomes positive and the total fertility rate recovers to the replacement level of 2.08, the population will cease to decline, and if circumstances improve further, it will begin to increase (as Malthus noted, the startling fact concerning populations is their capacity for exponential increase). Additionally, whether or not municipalities necessarily face disappearance is an issue for the local government system. In Germany, there are mini-municipalities with a population of eight5). Demographers can only shake their heads when every issue is referred back to population.

 However, there is no doubt that if the current status continues without change, the synergistic effect of the chronic outflows due to migration for education and employment and the natural decline which commenced as a result of the low birth rate and the aging of the population, the decline in the population of Japan’s regional municipalities will be much more rapid than the national average, and many rural communities will lose the basis for sustainability. This was already clear at the stage when the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research published regional population estimates in 2013, and there has been no change in the basic situation since the first population estimates by municipality were published. I myself have repeatedly warned of this situation in papers, books and lectures, but unfortunately this has failed to induce enough general concern for action to be taken, as in the case of the Japan Policy Council’s report.

 The unique points of the “disappearance of municipalities” argument are its linkage of the outflow of the younger population and the low birth rate which form the background to the decline in the regional population to a vague anxiety regarding excessive concentration of population in the low-fertility region of Tokyo, and its insistence that unless this trend is halted, it will be impossible not only to recover the regional population, but to halt the decline in population in Japan as a whole. Arguments have been raised against the rather odd concept of a “polarized society,” 6) an example of which is the idea of Japan’s historical large cities as “anthills” draining the surrounding countryside of population 4), proposed by a famous historical demographer who is a recipient of the Order of Culture. In addition, the extremely low fertility of Japan as a whole cannot be explained exclusively by the difference in fertility and the uneven distribution of the female population between Tokyo and regional areas. Again, the outflow of the regional population as a result of migration for education and employment is more male than female. As we see, while they do not render the argument invalid as a whole, specific points can be questioned at every turn. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that for all its misinterpretations, this argument has had a much greater impact on policy than orthodox arguments.

 When considering the success or failure of the related policies, however, the issues which concern us are how great the differences in marriage and fertility rates between Tokyo (or large cities) and Japan’s regional areas actually are, where this difference originates, and how great would the effect on marriage and fertility rates in the nation as a whole be if unipolar concentration in Tokyo was corrected.

 In order to respond to these questions, it is necessary to understand the differences in terms of concrete indicators. Using the number of first marriages and number of births from the 2010 Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare Vital Statistics and figures for population by marital status from the National Census, I therefore determined and analyzed the first marriage rate, the percentage of unmarried individuals, and the fertility rate by five-year age groups for three regions: The entire country (all prefectures), large cities (all wards of Tokyo + government-designated cities), and regional areas (all other areas). The results of this study (Table 1) indicated that while there were clearly differences in the status of marriage and fertility between cities and the nation’s regions, if we focus on the most recent data, these differences are very small, and even assuming that regional revitalization efforts counteracted the concentration of population in large cities and the entire population of young people of family formation age became concentrated in regional areas (or, as a result of policy efforts, the fertility rate in major cities was increased to the level of regional areas) the maximum effect in increasing the total fertility rate of Japan as a whole would be no more than around 0.06.
hara table 1 eng

 A study of the correlation between the percentage of the female population at age 18 continuing to higher education and the three indicators above showed a strong negative effect on the first marriage rate and fertility in the 20-29 age group and a positive effect from the 30-39 age group onwards. This tendency is most conspicuous in large cities. It may be considered that, in areas in which the rate of women progressing to higher education is high, there is little possibility for marriage and childbirth for the 20-29 age group due to migration for education and the limited time available while studying and following graduation, but that the possibility becomes high in the 30-39 age group onwards as a result of women seeking to catch up following their delay in marrying and having children. In fact, the birth rate is slightly higher among the 35-39 age group in major cities than in regional areas. From the perspective of the magnitude of the rate of advancement to higher education, we therefore cannot disagree with the contention of the Japan Policy Council that the concentration of population in major cities has resulted in a decline in Japan’s overall fertility rate.

However, taking into consideration the fact that the actual difference in fertility between cities and regional areas is minor, it is almost impossible to expect any direct effect on the trend in fertility; nevertheless, at the same time, if we estimate the total number of births assuming that regional revitalization efforts did counteract the concentration of population in large cities and the entire population of young people of family formation age became concentrated in regional areas, the total number of births for 2010 would increase by approximately 40,000, an increase of 3.7% in the crude birth rate. By contrast, if it is assumed that unipolar concentration in major cities proceeds without change and the entire population becomes urbanized, the number of births will decline by approximately 87,000, a decline of 8.1% in the crude birth rate. (Table 2) The really interesting point in these results is that if the entire population became regionalized (or the fertility rate of major cities increased to regional levels), then the number of births would increase for all age groups below 30-34, while it would decrease in the 35-39 age group. This suggests that if the trend towards the concentration of the female population in major cities was arrested, the trend towards late marriage and late birth would be halted.

hara table 2 eng

 The Long-term Vision and the Comprehensive Strategy for Overcoming the Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan, which the Cabinet passed together with the Regional Revitalization Law, establish a population vision for the entire country and a comprehensive strategy for its realization. They aim to increase the total fertility rate to around 1.8 at the national level by realizing citizens’ average desired number of children, and ultimately to achieve a population of around 100 million in 2060. In order to do so, the goal is to increase the fertility rate to replacement level (2.08) by around 2040.

 The plans which are being formulated by municipalities throughout the country at present are the regional version of this vision and strategy. However, according to the estimates discussed above, as of 2010, the fertility rate for the entire country was 1.41, the fertility rate for large cities was 1.27, and the fertility rate for regional areas was 1.47, i.e. the difference between major cities and regional areas was only 0.2. Given this, the majority of regional areas will be unable to come near to achieving 1.80, and in addition the absolute number of children will decline. Measures including the provision of more childcare centers have already been put in place, and in many areas all that can be done within the limitations of public finances has already been done. Large cities like Sapporo have conducted original surveys, and have found that in some areas the desired number of children does not reach 1.8, presenting difficulties in setting targets for fertility rate levels. As has already been pointed out by numerous experts in the field, the current low fertility rate is mainly due to late marriage and late birth, and reflects the extension of the period of education due to the increased percentage of women progressing to higher education and the concentration of the population in large cities. If this is the case, there are also limits on responses at the regional level due to restrictions in public finance. Because of this, many municipalities, rather than compliantly following the Long-term Vision’s 1.8 figure for the average desired number of children in setting their fertility rate targets (i.e. deferring to the necessity to rely on government policy) and attempting to increase births by devising original measures to support work-life balance and provide support for families, are working to ease or halt the decline in their populations by ensuring that they possess competitive advantages over large cities and their neighboring regions in order to increase the inflow of individuals of family formation age, and at the same time to reduce excess population outflow to zero or create an excess population inflow. In actuality, for the majority of municipalities, the effect of improving the net population migration rate would be greater than the effect of increasing fertility, and would be vastly more practical as a goal.

 Migration for the sake of education and employment is the central factor in outflows of population from Japan’s regional areas, but the rate of outflow is higher for males than females. Against the background of continuing closures of regional universities and technical colleges, not to mention elementary, junior high, and senior high schools, halting the outflow of young people from the regions to large cities for education is not an easy matter, but it remains in principle possible to attract people of family formation age back to rural areas or those originally born in the city to rural areas. In order to do so, it will be essential for rural areas to create competitive advantages, such as employment opportunities that offer possibilities and the potential to fulfill dreams, comfortable living environments, abundant nature, and warm human relationships. Above all, if we consider that a considerable proportion of the migration of women aged 20-39 will result from marriage, it is clear that creating employment opportunities for young men in regional areas is the policy key.

 At all events, in order to halt the tide towards the potential halving of the regional population of women aged 20-39 in a generation (approximately 30 years) and the “disappearance of municipalities” through regional revitalization efforts, it will not be possible to rely on the power of individual municipalities alone. To realize the 1.8 average desired number of children, the provision of active support for measures targeting the low fertility rate by the national government (for example, creating the conditions to enable regions to provide support for work-life balance like northern European nations and support for families like France) will be essential. Support on a national level will also be vital, for example national development plans that redistribute population between regional areas and large cities and correct economic disparities (such as the creation of multiple capitals or the decentralization of the functions of the capital and core ministries and agencies), and the relocation and creation of industries (the regional relocation or new establishment of financial institutions, company headquarters and businesses, the granting of company tax reductions on condition of creating jobs, etc.). Taking into consideration factors including the cutting-edge information technology environment and the development of airlines, in addition to earthquake preparedness and security, there is certainly potential for regional revitalization in Japan, and efforts in this direction can be considered an essential national orientation. From this perspective, it can be hoped that the “Urgent Policies to Realize a Society in Which All Citizens are Dynamically Engaged” 7) which has recently been put on the table will offer powerful support to regional revitalization.



1.Japan Policy Council (2015) “Nihon Sosei Kaigi, Jinkogennsho mondai kenntoubunnkakai teigen: Sutoppu shoshika, chihoh genki senryaku, kishakaiken (Press Conference on the Proposal of Japan Policy Council, the Declining Population Issue Study Group: Stop Low Fertility & Regional Revitalization Strategy),” (http://www.policycouncil.jp/)(In Japanese).
2.Machi Hito Shigoto Soseiho (The Regional Revitalization Law)” .
3.Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet (2015) “the Headquarter for Overcoming the Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan” (in Japanese) (https://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/headline/chihou_sousei/index.html).
4.Hiroya Masuda et al. (eds.) (2014) “Chiho Shometsu (The Death of Regional Cities ),” Chuo Koron Shinsho.
5.Jun Katagi (2012)Nichidoku hikakukennkyu shichoson gappei (Comparative study of Japan and Germany: Municipality Mergers),” Waseda University Academic Series, pp. 175-182.
6.Akira Hayami (2001) “Rekisijinkogaku de mita Nihon (Japan from the perspective of historical demography),” Bunshun shinsho.
7.Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet (2015) “National Council for Promoting the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens,” November 26, 2015 (http://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/actions/201511/26article4.html)