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Visualizing Japan's Fertility Rate

How does Japan's fertility rate compare to other countries, and how has this rate changed over time?

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4 min read
Visualizing Japan's Fertility Rate

Japan is known for having a low birth rate, but what do the actual numbers look like?

Definitions

From Britannica:

Fertility rate: average number of children born to women during their reproductive years.

Birth rate: the number of live births per 1,000 women in the total population
For the population in a given area to remain stable, an overall total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed, assuming no immigration or emigration occurs.

Fertility rates seem to be more commonly referenced in articles than birth rates, so we will focus on fertility rates.

Fertility Rate by Country

The countries with the lowest fertility rates are displayed in the following bar graph:

Fertility rate, total (births per woman) is licensed under CC BY-4.0

Japan does have a lower rate compared to most of the world, but there are countries with even lower rates.

The decline in fertility rates is also something that is happening globally:

Fertility rate, total (births per woman) is licensed under CC BY-4.0

There was a significant decline in birth rates in the 1950s, and then a gradual decline since then:

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

The drop in 1966 is due to a superstition:

The curse of the Fire-Horse: How superstition impacted fertility rates in Japan

Many Japanese families chose not to have children in 1966 due to their superstition of “Hinoe-Uma (Fire-Horse)”. Fire-Horse is the 43rd combination of the sexagenary cycle, which happens every 60 years. The superstition is that women born in this year of the “Fire-Horse” have a bad personality and will kill their future husband.

Many people probably don't have the impression that there was actually an increase in the fertility rate between 2005 and 2015.

However, it is important to make the distinction between the "fertility rate" and the "number of births."

As shown above, there have been recent years when the fertility rate increased, but the number of births have mostly been declining during that same period.

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

The birth rate is something that changes every year due to various factors. Last year the birth rate declined because of COVID-19, but the rate could go up this year or next year. But as an overall trend, it does seem likely that the number of births continues to decline in the near future.

Also, some people seem to oversimplify the situation and think that the low birth rates can be completely attributed to the work culture in Japan. Although working conditions are still a major problem that should not be ignored, if it were that simple, birth rates probably would've been very low during the 20th century.

It certainly may be a factor, but explaining birth rates with just the working conditions seems insufficient.

Changes in Other Countries

Compared to some of those other countries in Asia with a low fertility rate, we can see that Japan had the steep decline in fertility rate much earlier than other countries.

Fertility rate, total (births per woman) is licensed under CC BY-4.0

European countries with a low fertility rate have seen a more similar decline in fertility rates (at least since the 1960s).

Fertility rate, total (births per woman) is licensed under CC BY-4.0

The countries with the largest populations today are also seeing a decline in fertility rate.

Fertility rate, total (births per woman) is licensed under CC BY-4.0

Many of the countries shown in the above graphs have a low percentage of children.

Population ages 0-14 (% of total population) is licensed under CC BY-4.0

Japan does not have the lowest fertility rate or the lowest percentage of children, because there are other countries that have the same problem. However, the country does have the largest percentage of old people in the world, and the fertility rates are not high enough to improve the situation in the near future.

Many of these other countries with a low fertility rate may not have as many old people as Japan, but they may in the future. It would be interesting to see how different countries deal with this.

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