Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The Japanese government announced a package of reforms due this month to boost the country’s birth rate. The plan includes easier access to childcare and tax incentives.
"I want to confront the demographic problem head on and place particular emphasis on policies that will contribute to raising the birth rate," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after yesterday’s cabinet meeting.
Action was long overdue. After decades of steady decline, Japan’s birth rate is 1.42 children per woman. As one the lowest in the world, it falls far short than the 2.1 children per couple required simply to keep the population stable.
Japan's population is projected to fall from the current 127 million to 87 million in 2060, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research says.
According to Fr Andrea Lembo, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, who lives in Japan, the issue has two aspects, one economic and one social. "The pension system is slowly becoming a heavy burden on workers. As the population ages, it is not being replaced by new people. The welfare system is being squeezed and could collapse at any time.”
At the same time, one must keep in mind Japan’s “difficult social context. The birth rate is low because families cannot afford more than one child, at most two children, in a highly competitive and expensive environment. An individualistic culture de facto prevails in the country and most parents stick to one child to give him or her the best chances.”
"Shinzo Abe has certainly shown some interest in the matter,” Fr Lembo noted. “Perhaps he realises that children are needed to boost the economy. However, he is being a bit disingenuous because he is also calling for longer working hours. This will not help families. In my parish, I meet couples in which both parents work to support the family and never see their children.”
The Catholic and Protestant Churches have been working on the issue. Over the years, they have proposed pro-life programmes that have not seemingly found any echo in Japanese society.
"One must realise that Japan is strictly non-confessional,” the missionary said. “There is no bridge between religions and state policies. Except for a few large Buddhist families, with ties to politics, the government has no religious component."
However, the declining birth rate runs against the country’s traditions. "Shinto is the main religion,” Fr Lembo said. “It is mostly about life and does not entail celebrating death. Until 50 years, large families were commonplace and children a blessing. That is no longer the case.”
“In my parish occasionally, I meet large families. The other day a woman told me that she was expecting her fifth child, but that is extremely rare. "