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Japan announces plan to address a national crisis: its low birthrate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Japan's government recently announced plans to address what it sees as a national crisis. Less than 800,000 babies were born in the country last year, the lowest number on record. But the plans are being met with skepticism, partly because the government has been trying to fix the problem unsuccessfully for three decades. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report from one Japanese city that is doing better than most.

(CROSSTALK)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: To anyone concerned about the declining population, this child care center in western Japan's Akashi City offers some encouraging noises.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY SCREAMING)

KUHN: The center includes clean and bright playrooms and libraries. Haruka Okamoto, 30, brings her daughter here because it's free, and she can play with other kids. She says she was confident about having a child in Akashi and is considering having more.

HARUKA OKAMOTO: (Through interpreter) We get generous support for child care and other things, which even makes my friends jealous, so I'm not worried. We are building a house in Akashi. It is a town which makes me think I want to live here forever.

KUHN: Kids in Akashi get free medical care up to age 18. Families with two or more kids get free nursery school. Babies under age 1 get free diapers delivered to their homes by midwives, all regardless of income. Resident Arisa Chisaka says it's not just saving money on diapers that helps. It's also talking to the midwife.

ARISA CHISAKA: (Through interpreter) They also focus on mental care. Besides delivering diapers, they say things like, are you too tired? Or, please get more support from your husband.

KUHN: The child care policies have attracted young families to move to Akashi from other cities. Akashi's population has grown for 10 years in a row to over 300,000. As of 2021, women here had an average of 1.65 kids compared to 1.3 children nationwide. Many Akashi residents credit the city's success to Fusaho Izumi, the city's mayor from 2011 until April. In an interview in Tokyo, Izumi explains how he helped raise the city's birth rate.

FUSAHO IZUMI: (Through interpreter) I did not believe that population growth was the goal. It was just the result of making a city an easy place to live.

KUHN: Izumi notes that he doubled the city's child care spending not by increasing taxes, but by cutting spending on public works. He admits, though, that this offended some bureaucrats and businessmen. Last year, he pledged to quit politics and apologized for threatening two assembly members. He says his remarks were taken out of context. He insists Akashi's success can be replicated nationwide, but he doesn't think that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's plan will do the trick.

IZUMI: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, I must say that the plan is insufficient and too slow. Even if it is fully realized, it will have almost no effect.

KUHN: Kishida has pledged to double Japan's spending on child care by the early 2030s. He's promised bigger subsidies for families with kids, more spending on education and medical care for children with disabilities. He's not said exactly where the money will come from to pay for all this. Kishida highlighted the urgency of the issue in a June 1 speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Through interpreter) The period until the early 2030s, when the population of young people is expected to decline sharply, is the last chance to reverse the declining birth rate trend.

KUHN: But Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Tokyo's Chuo University, says Japanese governments' track record makes it hard to be optimistic. He's not confident that Japan has the stomach for the drastic reforms needed to increase its birth rate.

MASAHIRO YAMADA: (Through interpreter) I'm worried that Japanese people would prefer to accept a declining birth rate and everyone gradually equally getting poorer rather than accepting a big change which causes some people to lose out.

KUHN: Tae Amano leads a civic group that lobbies the government on child care policies. She says another problem is the Japanese don't all agree on the importance of the birthrate issue.

TAE AMANO: (Through interpreter) In the current generation, only 25% of households have children. That means the other 75% don't have children. Therefore, for lots of people, this is someone else's problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY WAILING)

KUHN: Some parents in Akashi expressed similar feelings. They're not just looking for welfare benefits, but for social acceptance. Hiromi Kumamoto explains, while taking care of her son.

HIROMI KUMAMOTO: (Through interpreter) I want the government to create an atmosphere in which people like those in Akashi who are raising children would be welcomed everywhere in the country.

KUHN: Her implication, though, is that Japan still has a long way to go before that's true.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Akashi City, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.