Unit 03 Kick-off Paper: Regional Revitalization and Japan’s Low Birth Rate

Ryuchi Kaneko
Deputy Director-General
National Institute of Population and Social Security Research

 In 2005, Japan’s total fertility rate (TFR) recorded its lowest-ever level, at 1.26. The figure has since recovered somewhat, and is now treading water between 1.4 and 1.5. At this level of fertility, the size of the offspring generation will be 70% that of the parent generation. It will be around 50% for the following generation. In other words, if the nation’s fertility rate stabilizes at the present level, Japan’s population will be halved every two generations. Thanks to the fact that until very recently, the second baby boomer was of child-bearing age, there has been no significant decline in births since the 1990s, with the figure just managing to top one million per year. However, because the next parent generation which succeeds the second baby boomers will be those born in a period marked by a low birth rate, the new era in which a generation of reduced size will produce a still smaller generation in a spiral of reproductive decline is upon us. If there is no change in the situation, it is predicted that the present figure of around one million births per year will decline to approximately 750,000 in 15 years (2030), and to approximately 480,000 in 30 years (2060). So far we have been concerned about the stagnation of the birthrate, but from now on, the actual numbers of births and thus succeeding generations will steadily but firmly decline. The era of true shrinkage in birth and generation has commenced at last.

 Responding to the sense of crisis engendered by this unprecedented decline in birth rate and population, the Japanese government has embarked on a huge project which encompasses all municipalities throughout the nation in an attempt to stem the tide of decline in regional areas, which are the epicenter of these phenomena. This is the project of “regional revitalization.” While a detailed background to this project will not be offered here, a brief overview is as follows: In May 2014, the Japan policy Council, a private expert group, published a name list of municipalities which might “disappear” in the future (representing approximately half of all municipalities in Japan), sending shockwaves throughout the nation (Japan Policy Council, 2014). In September of the same year, the government established the position of Minister in Charge of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan and created the Council on Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan in the Prime Minister’s Office, appointing Shigeru Ishiba as the first minister. In fiscal 2015, the government called for the formulation of a long-term population vision and a five-year plan to function as a comprehensive strategy for all of Japan’s local governments. A variety of measures were adopted on this basis, including the establishment of expert councils in the nation’s regions and the holding of explanatory meetings for local residents. Around one year has passed since these efforts were commenced. Concern over the problem has also increased among the general public, including coverage in the mass media, and discussion of the issue is increasing. As long as we focus on this chain of events, we may believe that the conditions for regional revitalization are entirely in place, and the process has commenced according to plan.

 However, the decline and aging of Japan’s population will create a wide range of grave problems, from our lifecycles to the existence of rural areas and the functioning of the national economy, and should essentially be considered as a shift in the socioeconomic regime, a radical transformation to be viewed from the perspective of human history. Given this, no matter what the present level of public concern, if this concern proves to be transitory, it will not produce the slightest change in the situation. Taking the next step in the right direction is decisively important for “regional revitalization” at present. But it does not seem that we actually possess clear guidelines with regard to that direction. For example, correction of the situation of unipolar concentration of the population in Tokyo as a means of encouraging citizens to reside permanently in regional areas is one of the fundamental orientations of the regional revitalization process. It is considered that the concentration of population in Tokyo steals young people from regional areas and exposes them to the low-birth-rate conditions of the metropolis, and that correcting this situation would not only hold young people in regional areas, but also resolve the issue of the low birth rate. Clearly, an orientation towards controlling the flow of population from the regions to Tokyo brings concrete policy measures into focus, and regional areas which were successful in the process would be able to ease their population decline and gain time for further responses. From a practical perspective, these would be important outcomes, and these measures should be pursued. However, ultimately, this would simply adjust the population distribution without halting the population decline in Japan as a whole. Unless the issue of the low birth rate is resolved, the specter of the disappearance of rural communities will continue to exist 1).

1) The acceptance of immigrants from other countries would also ease population decline and population aging. But in order to counter issues of the scale that Japan is
      facing, the nation would have to accept an unfeasible volume of immigrants.


 What should we make of the connection between the concentration of population in Tokyo and Japan’s low birthrate? In his paper, Japan’s leading authority on regional demographics, Toshihiko Hara, investigates the effect on the fertility rate of a cessation of the demographic flow from Japan’s regions to the city. Professor Hara finds that the difference between rural and city fertility rates is a mere 0.20, and the correction of this difference would only increase the national total fertility rate by a maximum of about 0.06 (Hara 2015). In other words, we cannot expect changing the population flow from the regions to the city alone to have a significant effect in solving the issue of the nation’s low birth rate. It is also the case that the disparity in the fertility rate observed between the city and rural areas is not exclusively a product of the urban lifestyle in restricting fertility; it is also possible that a selection effect plays a large part in the phenomenon. The selection effect in this case refers to the occurrence of an urban-rural disparity in fertility rates occurring because there are a large number of individuals among the young people leaving rural areas for the city who do not display a strong desire to marry and reproduce, and alternatively, because individuals leaving the city possess a strong inclination to create a family. Because the inclination to have children is a personal attribute, there will be no change in the resulting behavior no matter where the individual lives, and thus there will be no change in the fertility of Japan as a whole. If we divided a school class in half by height and assembled the tallest half on the right side of the classroom, a comparison of the average height of these students with that of the students on the left side of the classroom would show a disparity, but the average height of the class would not change. This is the same effect. Based on an analysis of demographic shifts using field surveys, Koike (2009) indicated that a selection effect is at least acting in concert with other factors in the rural-urban disparity in Japan’s fertility rate, and concluded that it would not necessarily be possible to entirely eliminate this regional disparity.

 Ultimately, there is no way to tackle the issue of the nation’s low birth rate other than head on. The experience of 40 years of confronting a declining birth rate below the population replacement level, and, in particular, a quarter century of implementing measures to respond to the issue should teach us that. This is to say that the example of other countries and our own experience have basically presented us with the complete menu of measures to respond to the low birth rate. In the words of Shigeru Ishiba, the Minister in Charge of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan, in relation to this issue, “There is neither a decisive measure that will instantly resolve the problem, nor a magically effective scheme that we have not previously been aware of.” In other words, there is no path open to us but to provide continuously and stably a setting where the quality of life especially in growing and childbearing period is ensured by enhancing effectiveness of policy measures of the ongoing menu. The government is at least recognizing this fact with its schemes for regional revitalization. In his paper, Professor Makoto Atoh, an internationally-respected authority on these issues, clearly delineates the factors lying behind Japan’s low birth rate via a comparison with other advanced nations. He indicates that the provision of social support for the family in Japan is the lowest among 21 countries surveyed by the OECD, and raises the point that one of the defining characteristics of the issue of the low birth rate in Japan is that insufficient effort has been made to reduce the burden of childraising (Atoh 2015). The fact that “despite their [successive Japanese governments] avowed intention to strengthen support measures” (Atoh 2015), the situation facing us has not been changed, highlights a specific nature of Japan’s unsuccessful measures to respond to the low birth rate. This is the question of how sincerely we have given consideration to our investment in future generations.

 Before we ask ourselves how to achieve a recovery in Japan’s fertility rate, we should ask ourselves why our successful mode of social and economic development has been powerless to stop the decline in the birth rate. What have we prioritized, and what have we not prioritized, so far? Before we consider the introduction of specific policies from France, Sweden, or other countries with satisfactory fertility rates, we should closely examine whether there are any fundamental differences in thinking between those countries and Japan. Ask ourselves whether we seek a high fertility rate, or wish to have the deserving successor to our culture and society. These questions are not being asked in the form that is ethically necessary. What message are the young members of the childbearing ages and the following generations receiving from society via its practice of raising birth rate? Their response will differ depending on the message they read. The younger generations are struggling to adapt to the real circumstances of contemporary society; if we seek to change their behavior and their lifestyles, we must convince them that they will be the very beneficiaries of the process. In this connection, “practice” as I am using the term here does not refer exclusively to the initiatives mounted by the national government and municipal governments, but also to the efforts of companies and other social actors. The effect of the stance of regional municipalities and regional companies, which are at the very site of regional revitalization, will be particularly important. Precisely now, when the concept of “regional revitalization” has engendered a shared sense of crisis regarding the sustainability of Japanese society among the general public, we must eschew superficial approaches based on scattered individual plans, and sincerely question what we should be aiming towards, engaging together in serious thinking about both the lives and lifestyles of our younger generations and the future of the nation and its regional areas. With Japan’s population structure changing at a furious rate, if we miss this opportunity, there is no knowing if another will come.