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THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING POPULATION

Japan’s births dropped below 900,000 in 2019, a record low

A baby holds a Japanese national flag outside the Imperial Palace
Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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  • Marc Bain
By Marc Bain

Fashion reporter

Japan’s fertility crisis is growing worse.

The country’s welfare ministry released figures today estimating just 864,000 babies were born in Japan this year, the first time the number has fallen below 900,000 since the country began keeping records in 1899. It represents a 5.9% decline from the roughly 918,400 births last year, and arrives two years before the year government predicted births would fall below 870,000. Japan estimates deaths this year will reach 1,376,000, meaning 512,000 more people will have died than were born.

It’s a gap that only keeps widening since deaths began to outpace births in Japan just over a decade ago, a trend that will have serious consequences for the country’s future.

Japan isn’t the only nation seeing its fertility rates falling. Many large developed economies are experiencing declines as well. But it’s dealing with a particularly pronounced mix of fewer babies and people living longer (pdf), meaning its population isn’t just getting smaller, it’s quickly getting older too. It’s now the oldest large country in the world by median age.

As this trend continues, there will be fewer working-age people funding a welfare system required to support the growing elderly population. The IMF forecasts that by 2050 the country’s dependency ratio—defined as the number of aged dependents per worker—will be easily the highest of any country at about 75%. The situation leaves Japan at risk of labor shortages and threatens to undermine its economic growth. The IMF predicts Japan’s shrinking, aging population could reduce its annual GDP growth by one percentage point over the next 30 years.

The country is making efforts to raise its fertility rate and offering perks to women who have babies. Its trying to improve the work-life balance for working moms and investing in elderly care and childcare. One town, Nagicho, was able to raise its fertility rate slightly by enticing new moms with a “gift” of 300,000 yen ($2,785).

But these efforts so far haven’t been enough. As it stands, the country seems likely to need an influx of immigrants—a solution it has historically been reluctant to embrace—if it wants to fix its demographic crisis. Otherwise it risks becoming a cautionary tale to other big economies as they watch their fertility fall.

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