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COVID not sole cause of marriage decline in Japan amid record low births

This chart shows the transition of the number of births and the total fertility rate in Japan from 1950 to 2022. During the Fire Horse year, occurring every 60 years, births fell due to the superstition that girls born in that year would bring destruction on their future husbands. The 1.57 shock refers to the shock in Japan when the total fertility rate sank to 1.57, the lowest figure on record at the time, even below that of the Fire Horse year. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Japan's total fertility rate dropped to 1.26 in 2022, matching the record low set in 2005, according to population survey data released this month. The figure, representing the average number of children a woman is estimated to bear in her lifetime, was significantly lower than the rate of 1.3 seen the previous year.

    The nation also saw births sink below 800,000 for the first time to stand at 770,747. A drop in the number of marriages in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is thought to have contributed to the decline in the birth rate, but it seems that is not the only factor.

    Yoshihiro Ryohara 32, a public relations official for the company Anniversaire Inc., which operates 10 wedding halls across Japan, says that in fiscal 2020, after a state of emergency over the coronavirus was issued, the number of couples holding wedding ceremonies and receptions fell to less than half the normal figure. Even popular venues that had been receiving as many as 15 couples a day at peak times had days when they were only receiving two to three couples.

    The actual number of marriages fell 504,878 in 2022, a drop of some 94,000 compared with 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. This drop was far bigger than the decline of about 21,700 between 2016 and 2019. A representative of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare commented, "Many births in Japan occur as a result of marriages. This may have affected the birth rate."

    On May 8, Japan downgraded COVID-19 to a class 5 disease, on par with seasonal influenza, and the effect of the coronavirus on society has weakened. Anniversaire says the number of bookings has returned to 80 to 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Ryohara confirmed, "As the coronavirus is settling down, the number of people having weddings has increased."

    The government's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research released figures in April showing the most likely outlook (middle estimate) for Japan's future population. It said that in the 2020s, the fertility rate would hover around 1.2, due to the lower number of marriages as a result of the coronavirus, and would return to pre-COVID-19 levels from the 2030s onward. The predictions for 2022 were a total fertility rate of 1.25 and 787,000 births, which are close to the actual figures recorded. A health ministry official commented that the numbers "fell due to the coronavirus and will return over several years, which is in line with the estimate."

    However, predictions of a future recovery of the birth rate are based on the assumption that the number of marriages will also recover. The 504,878 marriages seen in 2022 marked the first time in three years for the figure to increase from the previous year, but the increase was minimal. Moreover, the number of marriages between January and March this year was actually 14% below the figure recorded during the same period the previous year. One government official in charge of measures to combat the declining birth rate divulged, "We are very anxious about how the number of marriages will end up this year."

    The causes of the decline in the birth rate are diverse. Besides the effects of the pandemic, contributing factors that have been brought up in the past include the trend of people not getting married or getting married later in life, in addition to the cost of raising children.

    Shigeki Matsuda, a professor at Chukyo University who is familiar with policies on the low birth rate, commented, "The hypothesis that the rate will eventually return stands, but the recovery may take time (beyond the expected frame)." There is a tendency for more lower income people not to marry, but analysis shows that more people overall refrained from getting married during the coronavirus pandemic. It's possible that the impact of this may continue.

    "There is no magic cure, but it's important to enrich policies and support to remove the factors that hinder people from getting married even though they want to do so," Matsuda said.

    A member of the government's Children's Future Strategy Council, which is working on concrete measures against the low birth rate, commented, "As a target for measures against the declining birth rate, we are considering raising the marriage rate. The question of how to increase income is a major issue."

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi and Ayami Abe, Lifestyle, Science & Environment News Department)

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