A nation without children: A discussion of fertility decline in Japan

by Shawn L. Christiansen, associate professor, Family Life and Human Development, Southern Utah University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts
Human Sexuality
Parent Education and Guidance

As you walk through Tokyo you see a world inhabited by adults and ominously devoid of children. The birthrate in Tokyo is currently 1.09 per woman. In Tama, a city of about 200,000 outside Tokyo, six of its elementary schools have been closed, with three more scheduled to be shut down. As one resident of Tama City explained, "Back then, you always knew when school was out because the kids made so much noise. Now you see only elderly people walking the streets." When visiting Japan, you may feel as if you are in a Japanese postapocalyptic anime movie, where a human-caused disaster has rendered the population unable to reproduce. The truth is much less sinister in its explanation of fertility decline, but just as dire in the consequences for a nation without children.

Japan currently faces a population crisis fueled by a low birthrate and an aging population. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world (1.21 births per woman) and one of the longest life expectancies (82 years). The rate of population decline is accelerating despite government incentives such as financial allowances for having children. It is estimated that the Japanese population will decline from around 127 million today to 95 million by 2050. This drop of 32 million people is equivalent to the Tokyo metropolitan area vanishing in the next 35 years, or the populations of both New York and Pennsylvania becoming extinct.

These predictions are so extreme that they seem more science fiction than reality. A self-perpetuating cycle of low birthrates translates into fewer childbearing women and a continued decline in population. If current fertility rates continue, it is estimated that the population of Japan will be only 44.5 million in 2105. Thus, in a little less than 100 years, Japan will lose about two thirds of its population. It is hard to imagine even an infectious disease epidemic having such a huge impact on the size of the Japanese population over such a short time. The future of the Japanese economy and culture are at stake.

Reasons for fertility decline

Most research shows that fertility decline is a marriage problem. Most of the impact on fertility has been the increasing age of marriage and the overall decrease in marriage rates. The increase in marriage age shortens the prime fertility period for women and lowers the overall fertility rate. Between 1930 and 1990, women who were 25–29 years of age had the highest fertility rates. Today, most Japanese women are not married between those years. Second, when Japanese couples marry, most decide to have children. There is a polarization into a group of childless women and a group of women with more than two children. It is not declining marital fertility, but rather the growing tendency to delay or forego marriage that has caused fertility decline in Japan.

The later age of marriage accounts for more than half of the fertility decline in Japan. The average marriage age for women is 28.8; it is 30.5 for men. Despite the increased number of women postponing marriage, the percentage of women who desire marriage has changed little, with more than 90% of women expecting to marry. One key predictor of women wanting to marry younger was having a father who helped around the house. When women have positive views of men as fathers, their desire for early marriage increases.

Nevertheless, Japanese men often receive mixed messages about their gender role expectations. On the one hand, government media campaigns and family policies encourage men to be active in child rearing. These messages are contradicted by a work culture that expects total devotion. Similarly, women do not seem to want the empty marriages of their parents, where men devoted their lives to their companies in exchange for a paycheck and women spent their lives devoted to child rearing. Modern women want men who will share household and child care demands. Unfortunately, young men have often been raised by absent fathers and doting mothers and have not been socialized to be the kind of husbands and fathers young women desire. Furthermore, women desire men who are highly educated and will be good providers. And yet, for men to be good providers their loyalty and time must be to their companies and not to their wives and children. Japanese societal attitudes have set up men and women in a game where everyone loses. For example, men can take paternal leave, but few do. Even when there are policies that support men and families, the work culture is generally not supportive. A man who takes paternal leave is often seen as disloyal and uncommitted.

Negative cultural attitudes towards involved fathering are also reflected in divorce policy. Japanese divorce law was built on the "tender years doctrine," which assumes that women are superior parents and that young children need their mothers. This belief system is codified in gender roles that rigidly segregate men and women. Ironically, the cultural expectation that men follow a strict warrior work culture that inhibits leisure and family time penalizes them if they divorce. This bias in Japanese law becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as barriers between work and family limit men's involvement and then they are punished at divorce for not being involved.

Japanese women are increasingly becoming highly educated. Higher education puts women in a bind: if they want to advance in a career they must choose between work and parenthood, since corporate attitudes often do not support working mothers. Only when cultural attitudes change to allow men and women equality at work and home will women not have to choose between work and family. As Japanese women become more educated, they find themselves in a smaller marriage pool. Most Japanese women desire to marry a man who is highly educated and has a high income. Marriage rates mirror education rates, with the highest-educated men being the most likely to marry and less educated men showing the greatest declines in marriage. College attendance rates for men have gone down while attendance rates for women have gone up, so it is more difficult for women to find an economically "attractive" spouse. Research reflects a marriage squeeze, where uneducated men and highly educated women have the most difficult time marrying.

The traditional Japanese family was built on Confucian beliefs of filial piety. These beliefs fostered an obligation to marry, to care for elderly parents, and to maintain the paternal lineage through having children. Inherent in Confucian philosophy is the idea that a strong nation is built on strong families. This belief drove family life and the economy from the 1960s through the 1980s. Today it appears the Japanese are less Confucian and more consumeristic. In Tokyo, the cultural practice most observed is shopping, with consumer products and fashion being the primary objects of veneration.

Changing cultural and familial values are most evident in young adults. The term "parasite singles" represents young unmarried individuals who remain at home and take advantage of free housing and food. The money they save is not put away for future marriage and children but is used for travel and shopping. This "new single" concept reflects a carefree and spendthrift lifestyle where the focus is on enjoying life without the pressure to marry. Single adults living at home may also fulfill relationship needs in the family where mothers are happy to have their unmarried children at home to fill the void left by absent working husbands.

The economic rise of Japan after World War II was built on a work force focused on rebuilding their nation. The loyalty system of lifetime employment was one reason for the dramatic economic growth of Japan from the 1950s through the 1980s. Japanese family life was built on a large middle class that had a breadwinner father and a mother who managed the household. Although there were weaknesses in a system where work became family for the father, his family had economic security through consistent lifelong income. Unfortunately, fathers spent a majority of their time building the corporate empire of Japan and little time building relationships in the home. Despite the limitations of the rigid gender roles of this period, the security of income and employment gave men and women confidence to marry.

Japanese marriage has traditionally been built on arranged marriages. Marriage was about joining two households rather than two lovers. The proportion of arranged marriages dropped dramatically between 1955 and 1998 from 63% to 7%. The decline in arranged marriages mirrors the end of universal marriage in Japan. The changing mate-selection process also created a paradox. Young single adults who live in a culture that now favors love marriages were raised in a society without a model for dating and courting. Not meeting a suitable partner was the number one reason Japanese men and women gave for not being married. In the past, parents, relatives, or matchmakers fulfilled the role of finding a mate. Today many aspects of arranged marriage have become less formal but help in finding a spouse is still valued. Between 1970 and 1996, the percentage of couples introduced by friends and coworkers went from 13% to 28%. Without formal matchmakers or informal social introductions, young adults are left to their own dating skills, which they may not have developed.

The traditional role of Japanese women has been to ensure their children's future success by encouraging them to excel in school. The best way to guarantee this is by the child passing the entrance exams to college with a high score. This model for moving children through the school system and into employment has been called "examination hell." The focus on test scores puts great strain on mothers. The number one reason Japanese women selected for not having children was that it cost too much to raise and educate a child. Furthermore, many Japanese women only see the burden of raising children and little of the joy. The share of women with children who reported that they derive pleasure from child rearing has dropped to only 9%, compared to 40%–70% in other countries.

Not only does the high stakes educational system stress mothers, it can also negatively impact children. For example, it is estimated that there are currently 500,000 to one million youth who have given up on life and shut themselves away largely because they could not navigate the social and academic stresses of the educational system. This phenomena is so common it has its own name, hikikomori, which refers to withdrawing from society and rarely or never venturing outside their bedrooms. Another youth and young adult phenomenon is the otaku. Otaku are described as men whose lives revolve around hobbies such as insect collecting, anime, and manga. The synonyms most commonly used in English for otaku are "nerd" and "geek." Otaku are thought to prefer the virtual world and their hobbies to real-life relationships. They are often described as having limited interpersonal confidence and lacking the skills and economic status to attract a marriage partner.


Japan faces a demographic catastrophe. The rapid decline in fertility is matched by a dramatic increase in average life expectancy. With fewer workers and the increase in the elderly population, there will be fewer taxes to pay for the dramatically increasing costs of retirement and healthcare. The primary solutions to these problems are to increase tax rates and decrease benefits. These solutions are not only unpopular but will lead to further stagnation of the economy.

It is interesting that Japan has only discussed the economic consequences of decreased fertility and increased longevity. So far a meaningful discussion of the human, social, and cultural capital lost through decreased fertility has not been discussed. What does a society and culture lose when there are fewer children? What happens to a culture when fewer people have the opportunity to care for children? What is lost when you do not hear the laughter of children or witness the curiosity of a child discovering the world? Who will invent the next technology that will drive the economy? What social structures are lost when educational, recreational, and religious practices that are built around children diminish? What becomes of Japanese culture when there are fewer children to pass on the culture?

Japan has implemented several policies aimed at increasing fertility through the years and yet fertility continues to decline. Japan has it backwards; policies do not change behavior, personally held values and convictions change behavior. In Japan, there has been lip service to policies but not meaningful discussion and advocacy for real change in work and family life. Behavior change is related to what is valued. Until Japan values children, marriage, and supporting family life, the population will continue to decrease until Japan is a nation without children.


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