Japan suffered its biggest population decline on record this year, according to new figures that underline the country’s losing battle to raise its birthrate.
The number of births fell to its lowest since records began more than a century ago, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said, soon after parliament approved an immigration act paving the way for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers to address the worst labor shortage in decades.
The ministry said it estimated that 921,000 babies would have been born by the end of this year — 25,000 fewer than last year and the lowest number since comparable records began in 1899.
It is also the third year in a row that the number of births has been below 1 million.
Combined with the estimated number of deaths this year — a post-war high of 1.37 million — the natural decline of Japan’s population by 448,000 is the biggest ever.
The data suggests the government is likely to struggle to reach its goal of raising the birthrate — the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime — to 1.8 by April 2026.
The birthrate stands at 1.43, well below the 2.07 required to keep the population stable.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has described Japan’s demographics as a national crisis, and promised to increase childcare venues and introduce other measures to encourage couples to have more children.
Yet the number of children on waiting lists for state-funded daycare increased for the third year in a row last year, raising doubts over his plans to provide a place for every child by April 2020.
Japanese people have an impressive life expectancy — 87.2 years for women and 81.01 years for men — which experts attribute to regular medical examinations, universal healthcare coverage and, among older generations, a preference for Japan’s traditional low-fat diet.
However, the growing population of older people is expected to place unprecedented strain on health and welfare services in the decades to come.
Some of those costs are to be met by a controversial rise in the sales tax, from 8 percent to 10 percent, in October.
Earlier this year, the government said 26.1 million — or just more than 20 percent of the total population of 126.7 million — were aged 70 and older.
The number of centenarians as of September this year had risen to 69,785, with women making up 88 percent of the total.
Japan has the highest proportion of older people — or those aged 65 and over — in the world, followed by Italy, Portugal and Germany.
The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo estimated that more than 35 percent of Japanese would be aged 65 or older by 2040.
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