Japan’s Internal Affairs Ministry published the latest numbers on the country’s declining population on Aug. 11. The data doesn’t make for pleasant reading. In the year through the end of March 2009, the number of births in Japan fell for the first time since 2006 to 1.08 million, while there were 1.13 million deaths. Put together, that adds up to a record decline in the population of 45,914. That bests (if that’s the right word) the previous biggest decline of 29,119 in 2007. Just as worrying, the number of Japanese 65 or older increased to a record 28.21 million out of total population of 127 million. Meanwhile, the current recession—Japan’s GDP may shrink 6% this year—will likely make things worse as couples decide to delay or have fewer children.
Still, as grim as all that is, the plunge could add further impetus to the Democratic Party of Japan’s election campaign. The DPJ, which is set to oust the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an Aug. 30 election, has included some fairly radical measures to help boost Japan’s birthrate. Among them: giving parents $270 a month per child and making state high school tuition free. The DPJ is also considering expanding medical insurance to cover certain kinds of fertility treatment and will up the one-off payment parents receive on the birth of each child.
Strong measures are needed given only Hong Kong has a lower birthrate than Japan. Critics, though, say a stronger economy and a more forgiving corporate culture which encourages people to spend more time with friends and family would have a bigger impact. There are also questions as to how the DPJ plans to pay for these and other expensive pledges given Japan’s already gigantic gross national debt, which was already 170% of GDP before the current economic crisis triggered huge stimulus spending. They are all fair points. Yet, with the rate of population decline gathering speed, the DPJ’s plan to stimulate the birthrate looks like a vote winner.
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