Japan has unveiled draft plans aimed at boosting the country’s birthrate through subsidies for childrearing and education.
It has also unveiled a salary increase proposal for younger workers to incentivise marrying and having children.
Japan’s population of more than 125 million has been declining for 15 years and is projected to fall to 86.7 million by 2060.
A shrinking and ageing population has huge implications for the economy and national security as the country fortifies its military to counter China’s increasingly assertive territorial ambitions.
Children’s policies minister Masanobu Ogura said the next few years are possibly the “last chance” for Japan to reverse its declining births.
If the number of births keeps falling at the rate since the beginning of 2000, the young population will shrink at twice the current pace in the 2030s, he said.
Many younger Japanese have baulked at marrying or having families, discouraged by bleak job prospects, corporate cultures incompatible with having both parents — but especially women — work, and the lack of public tolerance for small children.
To address the problems, Mr Ogura’s plan proposes increased financial assistance, including more government subsidies for childrearing, more generous student loans for higher education and greater access to childcare services.
It also aims to change the cultural mindset toward more gender equality both at work and at home.
The proposal also includes increased government assistance to companies to encourage more men to take paternity leave, which has been a point of contention for working fathers fearing retaliation.
“While diverse views about marriage, childbirth and childrearing should be respected, we want to make a society where young generations can marry, have and raise children as they wish,” Mr Ogura said.
“The basic direction of our measures to tackle low births is to reverse the trend of declining births by supporting individuals’ pursuit of happiness.”
Mr Ogura said he has submitted the proposal to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for further consideration.
It will be part of a bigger policy package that Mr Kishida’s government will compile in June.
In 2022, Japan had 799,728 newborns, a record low, falling below 800,000 for the first time since surveys began in 1899.
Many couples are hesitating to add to their families because of rising costs.
Japan is the world’s third biggest economy but living costs are high, wage increases have been slow and about 40% of Japanese are part-time or contract workers.
Critics say the government has lagged in making society more inclusive for children, women and minorities.
Under the conservative governing party, which supports traditional family values and gender roles, women who are unmarried or without children tend to be less respected, and marriage is a prerequisite for having children.
While diverse views about marriage, childbirth and childrearing should be respected, we want to make a society where young generations can marry, have and raise children as they wishChildren's policies minister Masanobu Ogura
Mr Ogura’s proposal did not mention its estimated cost.
So far, government efforts to encourage people to have more babies have had a limited impact despite subsidies for pregnancies, births and childcare.
In a country that ranks among the worst globally in gender equality, the situation hampers women’s pursuit of careers after marriage or after having children.
The majority of Japanese people between the ages of 18 and 34 say they hope to marry at some point but plan to have fewer than two children.
A growing percentage say they have no intention of getting married, according to data cited in the proposal.