Cash Can’t Fix Japan’s Fertility Crisis

Women’s role in society has evolved, but Kishida’s policies haven’t kept up.

By , a writer currently living in Paris.
A Japanese woman holds a baby in her arms as she walks down a cobblestone street. The baby is dressed in a pink outfit with a darker pink hat made to look like a strawberry, and looks over her shoulder toward the camera.
A Japanese woman holds a baby in her arms as she walks down a cobblestone street. The baby is dressed in a pink outfit with a darker pink hat made to look like a strawberry, and looks over her shoulder toward the camera.
A woman holds a baby in the hot spring town of Arima Onsen, located on the outskirts of Kobe, Japan on Oct. 9, 2019. Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

In June, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the government’s latest attempt to reverse Japan’s historically low birth rate. The anticipated measures, which would cost an estimated $22 billion, include a pledge to double child care spending by the early 2030s and lift the income cap for child cash benefits, among other incentives that the Kishida cabinet hopes will encourage young Japanese couples to have more children.

In June, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the government’s latest attempt to reverse Japan’s historically low birth rate. The anticipated measures, which would cost an estimated $22 billion, include a pledge to double child care spending by the early 2030s and lift the income cap for child cash benefits, among other incentives that the Kishida cabinet hopes will encourage young Japanese couples to have more children.

Today, Japanese women on average have just 1.26 children—far below the rate of 2.1 children per woman, considered by demographers as necessary to maintain a stable population. Up to 42 percent of adult Japanese women and 50 percent of men will not have children in their lifetime, according to government estimates.

In January, Kishida said, “Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” stressing the need to solve the crisis “now or never.” But Kishida’s plan to pour funds into child care is mostly a continuation of previous—and largely unsuccessful—natalist policies. The approach, though far more generous than the social safety nets offered by many Western countries, glosses over the structural factors dissuading young Japanese from getting married and having children: soaring living costs, wage stagnation, and acute gender inequality that forces many women to choose between motherhood and a career. It’s for these reasons that demographers—and, according to an April survey, 80 percent of the Japanese public—doubt Kishida’s plans will resolve Japan’s fertility crisis.


For many young Japanese, having children is simply too expensive. Wages in Japan have barely budged in three decades. On average, people in their 20s make about $17,000 to $20,000 a year.

This stagnation contrasts sharply with soaring living costs. On Oct. 23, Kishida announced measures to combat the country’s cost-of-living crisis, notably by extending gasoline and utilities subsidies until next spring and possibly issuing income tax cuts as part of an economic stimulus package. While that might offer a temporary buffer to current inflation—consumer purchasing power fell 2.5 percent on the year in August, marking the 17th consecutive month of declines—it won’t address decades of wage stagnation that have made it difficult for young Japanese to stay financially afloat.

High real-estate prices in urban centers such as Tokyo have prompted young professionals to opt for “micro-apartments”—tiny studios often no larger than 95 square feet—that are hardly suitable for raising a family. In 2020, average one-bedroom apartments in Tokyo cost around $1,100 a month; two-bedrooms surged to an average of more than $1,600.

That might appear cheap compared to a place such as Manhattan—where the average one-bedroom goes for more than $4,400—but stubbornly low salaries keep even seemingly affordable rents out of reach for working-class Japanese. What’s more, prospective renters are expected to present a bank account with three to seven times the stated monthly rent and must pay one or two months’ rent ahead of time, in addition to a one-month security deposit—not to mention exorbitant fees, including “key money,” a nonrefundable move-in payment to landlords that often amounts to as much as three months’ rent.

The costs of children’s education and care compound this problem further. While public education is far cheaper than private, families in Japan still pay fees for public education at all levels. In 2021, gross annual child care costs for two children in Japan made up nearly half the earnings of an average couple with full-time work—a relatively high proportion among developed economies.

It’s not just the desire to have children that’s diminished. Surveys point to waning interest in relationships and sex, especially among young people. For Haruka Sakamoto, a researcher at the Department of Global Health Policy at the University of Tokyo, this, too, is an economic story. Young people, she explained, simply do not earn enough to plan for the long term, making stable relationships seem far-fetched. “While in the past, people have explained Japan’s low sex and relationship culture as stemming from interest in anime and fictional characters that supplant interest in real-life relationships, it’s actually an economic issue,” Sakamoto said in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Michiko Ueda-Ballmer, a political scientist at Syracuse University in the United States who studies social isolation among Japanese youth, said many young Japanese women would like to get married, “but they simply cannot afford it.” Survey data shows that young people don’t have the financial stability necessary to bill themselves as a viable partner. “The result is that people don’t get married.” And because Japan has the lowest rate of children born outside of marriage among developed economies, this also means they are unlikely to have children.


In 2013, then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” policy promised to integrate women into the workforce and propel them to high-paying jobs, but the policy hasn’t solved women’s economic problems. Today, Japan still has some of the starkest gender imbalances among developed economies by nearly every measure.

While women’s employment is higher than it was two decades ago, women are overrepresented in precarious part-time jobs or contract work and underrepresented in politics, higher education, and senior management in the work force. Japan has the widest gender wage gap in the G-7: Women earn about 75 percent as much as men for full-time work.

In the age of Womenomics, Japanese women are caught in a double bind: High living costs mean that they are no longer expected to stop working once they have children. Yet because they still bear the brunt of domestic work, even Japan’s generous parental-leave benefits—which few men choose to take—are not enough to insulate women from the pressure to drop out of the labor force after having children. Even highly educated women who leave the labor force after having children struggle to eventually reintegrate back into it. Some fear that in the case of divorce, they’ll be unable to stay afloat financially, in large part because of the stark gender pay gap. “If women view economic independence and child-rearing as mutually exclusive, they’ll often choose independence,” Sakamoto said.

In her research, Yuka Minagawa, a social demographer at Sophia University in Tokyo, has closely analyzed blogs and online discussion boards where mothers discuss challenges related to child care. “Thus far,” she said, “I did not find a single post that suggests the amount of child allowance as a source of a struggle. Instead, recurring themes include the lack of shared responsibility of child care and domestic work between men and women, pressure and conflict in managing work and family, and stress due to strong norms about motherhood in society.”

In recent years, attitudes toward domestic tasks and work-life balance have begun to shift, especially among young people. According to a recent government survey, 30 percent of fathers in their 20s or 30s said they were eager to find more time for housework and child care, and more than one-third of men and nearly one-quarter of women said they wanted to reduce work hours.

Yet the professional gains that some women have seen in recent years have not uprooted unrealistic expectations and stereotypes about motherhood. That’s the view of Yumiko, a 39-year-old communications professional living in Tokyo, who preferred to provide only her first name. Yumiko said that she and her peers have come to view Abe’s Womenomics as an empty promise to “exploit women to stimulate Japan’s stagnant economy.” She added that the paradigm failed to “address the social norm that requires women to be perfect mothers, but only purely adds a new role that forces women to contribute to the country’s economy no matter what their circumstances.” Companies now expect women to “work at full capacity, but if women prioritize work over children, society labels them as bad mothers.”

The same expectation doesn’t apply to fathers, she said, pointing to the notion of ikumen—a term to describe men who contribute to child care and housework while maintaining steady careers. There is no equivalent word for women; for women, to balance work and the home is considered a given, not an accomplishment.


Certainly, there are many possible solutions that could help solve Japan’s complex demographic problems. Yet the country’s cultural conservatism often undermines its natalist policy goals.

For example, Kishida’s strategy fails to encourage childbirth outside of “traditional” relationships, and his policies have focused exclusively on married, heterosexual couples. A bill currently under consideration, for example, would outlaw fertility assistance for LGBTQ couples or single mothers.

And while economists consider migration an obvious solution to population decline—at least insofar as it concerns labor shortages—immigration reform remains conspicuously absent from Kishida’s proposals. Japan’s immigration policies are notoriously restrictive. Although immigration of high-skilled workers has increased in recent years, Japan remains all but closed to migrants and asylum-seekers. Its recent—albeit narrow—push to expand visas for foreign-born workers is a good start. But such piecemeal openings—especially when paired with stricter asylum policies—are a far cry from the sweeping economic, social, and political changes needed to shift Japan’s demographic tide.

Some of Kishida’s measures do differ from past governments’ strategies, including increasing the supply of subsidized housing accessible to families with children and promoting increased flexibility in working hours for parents.

But the monetary support that he proposes is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the fertility rate, given how unaffordable it is to raise a family in Japan. According to Minagawa, the social demographer, “It is hard to imagine that a monthly child allowance in the amount of 15,000 JPY [Japanese yen; about $100] would alter the reproductive decisions that prospective parents make, when the national average costs of education, from kindergarten to university all in public institutions, amount to almost 8 million JPY [more than $55,000].” A better option, she said, would be to adopt more structural reforms to address soaring living costs and low wages.

For Setsuya Fukuda, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo, Kishida’s approach, at best, “might alleviate some of the economic burdens faced by existing parents,” but “its impact on marriage and fertility is likely to be limited if there are no assurances of economic growth and secure employment for young adults.”

Fukuda stressed that Kishida’s efforts would be better spent on developing demographic policies “aimed at preparing society to adapt to further population aging and decline.” This could include allocating funds for health care, pensions, and long-term care as well as working to fill labor shortages, including by expanding the number of foreign workers in Japan.

Yukie, a 29-year-old woman who works at a Tokyo architecture firm, said the government would need to make bolder policy interventions to generate a shift in attitudes toward parenthood. Subsidized child care, for example, will only go so far amid a shortage of spots in day care facilities in urban centers like Tokyo. In one recent survey, 65 percent of respondents said free high school and college education would encourage them to have more children.

These policies, however, may be too little, too late for a country that has long failed to embrace structural change, or to reckon with its deeply entrenched gender norms. Even if she does become financially independent, Yukie doesn’t see a future for herself in Japan. “The stereotype of what it means to be a woman is too strong here,” she told me over tea at a Tokyo coffee shop earlier this year. “As a woman who wants to make my own money, to express myself, to not conform, Japan feels like it’s not my place.”

This reporting was supported by the Social Science Research Council’s Abe Fellowship for Journalists.

Karina Piser is a writer currently living in Paris. Twitter: @karinadanielle6

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