Over the past few decades, Japan has faced a dual challenge of decreasing birth rates and an ageing population. To address this, the government has launched several major initiatives since the 1990s to tackle the problem, including the Angel Plan, the New Angel Plan and the Plus One Policy. However, these have had a minimal effect – mainly due to limited resources and a lack of social alignment with the government's priorities.
After having a high fertility rate in the baby boom period after World War II, Japan's birth rate dropped to being one of the lowest in the world 50 years later, and the issues of declining fertility and an ageing society have become central to the government's concerns. “The phrase '1.57 Shock' was widely used in Japan in reaction to the lowest Total Fertility Rate (TFR) — the average number of children that a woman is estimated to give birth to in her lifetime — in the country's history in 1989. The rate continued its decline after 1989, reaching an all-time low of 1.26 lifetime births per woman in 2005.” The Japan Ageing Research Centre in Tokyo predicted that the nation's total fertility rate will fall to 1.16 in 2020.
The country also has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, leading it to face a steep decline at one end of the lifecycle and a boom at the other. Its population is forecast to fall to about 83 million by 2100, with 35% of Japanese aged over 65, according to the United Nations.
Similarly, the proportion of the working age population is falling, which constitutes a significant challenge for the economy. “According to estimates by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), by 2030 the number of workers will drop by about 10 million from its (2006) level to about 56 million.” Economic concerns are one of the most frequently cited reasons for Japanese people to get married later in life or remain single. Women who need, or want, to work face difficulties in combining employment and child rearing, due to the limited availability of childcare services, unfavourable employment practices, and a lack of flexible working conditions.
To encourage more births, the Japanese government has introduced a series of measures over the years, which include the Angel Plan, a five-year plan in 1994 to assist couples in raising children, the New Angel Plan in 1999, followed by the Plus One Policy in 2009. The Angel Plan and the New Angel Plan were both designed to make having children an easier and more attractive option. It aimed to achieve its goal by addressing a few related challenges:
- "Improve the employment environment to reconcile work and family responsibilities
- "Enhance childcare services
- "Strengthen maternal and child health facilities
- "Improve housing and public facilities for families with children
- "Promote child development
- "Improve the educational environment for children
- "Ease the economic cost associated with child rearing."
The most recent idea, the Plus One Proposal, was intended to encourage families to grow by "plus one". It aimed to create parent-friendly working conditions, with funds allocated for the construction of 50,000 new daycare facilities.
The public impact
So far, the results have been very limited:
- "There has been a small increase in the TFR, reaching 1.37 in 2008. Birth rates have risen slightly for all in the childbearing ages, although somewhat faster for women aged 35 to 39."
- From 2008 to 2014, TFR continued to grow but still at a slow pace – reaching 1.42 in 2014, which is significantly below the OECD average of 1.74.
- "In 2008, women's labour force participation dropped to 76% for those aged 25 to 29 and to 65% for those in their 30s."
- As a result of efforts to increase access to daycare, the number of children on daycare waiting lists decreased from 26,383 in 2003 to 23,338 in 2005. "However, daycare service is still less available in Japan for very early childhood. Of the 23,338 children on the waiting list, 15,831 (67.8%) were under two years old."
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Good
The initiatives to increase the Japanese fertility rate were led by central government. In view of the trending decrease of the birth rate in the country, a consultation was launched to develop policy measures to address the problem. "The Japanese government was surprised by the historically low TFR of 1.57 in 1989 and started an inter-ministry meeting to devise measures to cope with the declining fertility in 1990." This initiative was followed by the formulation of a “Basic Direction for Future Child Rearing Support Measures” in December 1994, which is known as the Angel Plan. The Angel Plan itself was formulated under the aegis of the four ministries that were affected by the issue of declining fertility.
Political Commitment Fair
The Japanese government was committed to increasing the TFR, and a number of initiatives were implemented to this end from the 1990s onwards. Before the Angel and New Angel Plans and the Plus One Policy were officially implemented, an inter-ministry committee was set up to ensure the right measures were adopted, and the first pro-natal measures started in 1991 with a government guideline, 'Towards Satisfactory Conditions for Healthy Child Rearing', amendments to the Child Allowance Law, and enactment of the Childcare Leave Law. Similar interventions and amendments continued over the years.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated in a press release announcing the birth rate improvement plan that “Creating prosperous, bright and vital local communities is a priority for the Abe Cabinet. The wave of economic recovery must reach every corner of the nation."
However, statement does not appear to have been supported by any great financial commitment. "All of the political parties from right to left state the importance of measures for families with children. But the budget share for families with children has been increasing very slowly in recent decades." Critics also point out that the government's measures have not been sufficient, citing that "70% of the social-welfare budget goes to programmes for the aged, such as pensions and medical services, with only 4% set aside for services for children, such as child benefits and childcare services.”
Public Confidence Weak
Although there is some awareness of the problem of declining birth rates and their effect on country’s labour force and economy, these issues do not have a significant impact. There are other pressing concerns for the population which actually discourage them from having children, such as low economic growth, a rigid working environment, and a lack of support to simultaneously manage work and child rearing. These factors make the population anxious about possible future hardship. "[The] Japanese have become increasingly concerned about the future as social security costs, such as pension contributions and insurance premiums for medical care and nursing care for the elderly, as well as tax burdens, are expected to keep rising sharply amid declining birth rates and the rapid greying of society.”
Similarly, there seems to be a trend among Japanese youth that has been called "sekkusu shinai shokogun" or "celibacy syndrome", where young people do not want to date, be intimate, get married, or have sex. Some of the statements collected from young people include: "'I find women attractive but I’ve learned to live without sex. Emotional entanglements are too complicated' or 'I don’t earn a huge salary to go on dates and I don’t want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage'”.
Clear Objectives Good
The Japanese government has been clear and consistent in its goal of increasing birth rates since it started to implement its first Angel Plan. However, no measurable objectives were established at the outset that could be tracked. Over time, the government started to set more measurable targets.
The policy objectives identified for the New Angel Plan include:
- "Making daycare centres and childcare services more accessible
- "Making the employment environment more [flexible] for workers with children
- "Changing traditional gender-role values and 'work-first' atmosphere in the working environment
- "Developing maternal and child health facilities
- "Promoting an educational environment based on local community
- "Improving the educational environment for children
- "Reducing the economic burden of educational costs
- "Making community functions more supportive for families with children through housing and public facilities."
In the case of the Five-Year Emergency Measures for Childcare Services, the New Angel Plan did set more concrete targets to be met by the end of 2004. More recently, in 2015, the government adopted a set of more specific targets to tackle the existing birth rate by 2020. These included:
- Raising the percentage of men taking paternity leave to 80% by 2020
- Increasing the proportion of men taking state-subsidised childcare leave — for a maximum of one year — to 13% in 2020 (from only 2% in 2013) and the proportion of women retaining their jobs after the birth of their first child, from 38% in 2010 to 55% in 2020.
- Planning to raise the time spent by those with children of 6 years and younger to 150 minutes a day from just 67 minutes in 2011.
Research was conducted after the "1.57 shock" to understand the causes behind the low rate of childbirth in Japan, which revealed that the increasing participation of women in the labour market and insufficient support to help them manage their work alongside raising a child were among the major reasons for the decreasing the attractiveness of having children. The Angel Plan was introduced on the basis of these findings.
The MHLW reported a survey finding that over 90 percent of couples wanted to marry and have at least two children. This led to the conclusion that "fulfilling those two desires would raise the TFR to about 1.8, the Ministry estimates. To the extent that those figures are realistic, it seems possible to raise the birth rate."
The numerous initiatives to address the declining fertility rate in Japan started with the launch ofan inter-ministry committee for “Creating a Sound Environment for Bearing and Rearing Children” in 1990, after which several strategies were launched through the years. The most significant of these were the five-year Angel and New Angel Plans, which were supported by numerous amendments and laws regarding childcare, work insurance, etc.
However, implementation has been consistently limited by budgetary constraints. "According to an estimate of the cost of social security in Japan for fiscal year 2001, 55.6 percent of total social security benefits were paid out for the elderly. On the other hand, only 3.7% were paid out for families with children." Critics argue that the Ministry of Finance is reluctant to add new budget resources for family policies. Therefore, there is always a trade-off — for every new policy which is implemented, another one is usually scrapped.
For the New Angel Plan, "more convenient daycare centres were envisioned but a lack of funds impeded progress. As part of the New Angel Plan, payments from the government to support child rearing are limited to 26,000 yen per child per month (about US$280). (…) In 2009, Japan introduced a much broader version of the Angel Plan, recognising that its past attempts to encourage childbearing had shown few results."
Initiatives have been led primarily by central government and the prime minister, with management under the MHLW and other ministries. They have been in charge of establishing the numerous committees formed to design policies for this initiative, with the MHLW responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of implementation, overseeing requirements for daycare centres, and publishing annual reports to disclose activities. Initiatives are sometimes also supported by individual municipalities in terms of budget, staff, etc when needed.
However, there is no evidence of clear targets or budget allocated to ensure progress, and municipalities have complained, claiming that actual running costs are over three times higher than the standard cost criterion set by the MHLW. Chiyoda-ward municipality in Tokyo, for example, has previously objected that contributions from national, prefectural and ward budgets, as well as users’ charges to the actual running costs, are usually considerably higher than the guidelines suggest.
The MHLW's measurement methodology is quite comprehensive and has been tracked over time – although some metrics have been modified. The Ministry publishes an annual report which tracks relevant indicators for the overall demographic trends, as well as monitoring initiatives such as daycare centres' availability and quality. The indicators include:
- Income threshold of child allowance for two- and four-person households
- Number of children receiving the Child Rearing Allowance
- Working status of parents by type of daycare centre
- Expansion in the number of children (aged 0-2) admitted to daycare centres
- Number of daycare centres
- Maximum number of children that can be enrolled
- Actual number of children enrolled.
The government struggled to align incentives for achieving the objectives of this policy with other issues affecting society in the shorter term. Even though there was a clear motivation to increase birth rates for the sake of the country's economic sustainability, there was a mismatch between the priorities of the population and those of policymakers. Economic constraints and tough working conditions were some of the key factors keeping people from having children, and these issues had to be addressed.
Komine Takao, a professor at the Graduate School of Regional Policy Design at Hosei University, argued that "while it is, of course, important to deal with problems in specific areas, fundamentally, all these issues (low economic growth, etc) are linked to the problem of birth rate decline (...). If action were taken to address birth rate decline, action to address problems in specific areas is sure to be much easier. Seen in this light, it is fair to say that responding to the population crisis with little more than a mishmash of individual reactions by disparate members of society is not enough, and Japan needs to respond to the crisis strategically from a comprehensive perspective."
On the other hand, there is evidence of support from the private sector, specifically major Japanese companies. “Matsushita Electric Industrial Co extended the period during which both male and female employees can take childcare leave. Toshiba allows workers to take paid leave for childcare by the hour.” Mitsubishi Electric and Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries extended their policy by reducing their employees’ working hours to enable them to take care of their children until third grade in primary school (the policy formerly only covered parents of preschoolers). “Nissan Motor Co has set up what it calls maternity protection leave, which allows female workers in factories or other manufacturing facilities to take leave as soon as they learn of their pregnancy.”