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Japan in a dying way of life? 25 years without newborn!

When Kentaro Yokobori was born almost seven years ago, he was the first newborn in the Sogio district of Kawakami village in 25 years. His birth was like a miracle for many villagers.

Well-wishers visited his parents Miho and Hirohito for more than a week – nearly all of them senior citizens, including some who could barely walk.

“The elderly people were very happy to see [Kentaro], and an elderly lady who had difficulty climbing the stairs, with her cane, came to me to hold my baby in her arms. All the elderly people took turns holding my baby,” Miho recalled.

During that quarter century without a newborn, the village population shrank by more than half to just 1,150 – down from 6,000 as recently as 40 years ago – as younger residents left and older residents died. Many homes were abandoned, some overrun by wildlife.

Kawakami is just one of the countless small rural towns and villages that have been forgotten and neglected as younger Japanese head for the cities. More than 90% of Japanese now live in urban areas like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – all linked by Japan’s always-on-time Shinkansen bullet trains.

That has left rural areas and industries like agriculture, forestry, and farming facing a critical labor shortage that will likely get worse in the coming years as the workforce ages. By 2022, the number of people working in agriculture and forestry had declined to 1.9 million from 2.25 million 10 years earlier.

Yet the demise of Kawakami is emblematic of a problem that goes far beyond the Japanese countryside.

The problem for Japan is: people in the cities aren’t having babies either.

“Time is running out to procreate,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a recent press conference, a slogan that seems so far to have fallen short of inspiring the city dwelling majority of the Japanese public.

Amid a flood of disconcerting demographic data, he warned earlier this year the country was “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions.”

The country saw 799,728 births in 2022, the lowest number on record and barely more than half the 1.5 million births it registered in 1982. Its fertility rate – the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years – has fallen to 1.3 – far below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population. Deaths have outpaced births for more than a decade.

And in the absence of meaningful immigration – foreigners accounted for just 2.2% of the population in 2021, according to the Japanese government, compared to 13.6% in the United States – some fear the country is hurtling toward the point of no return, when the number of women of child-bearing age hits a critical low from which there is no way to reverse the trend of population decline.

All this has left the leaders of the world’s third-largest economy facing the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for a ballooning elderly population even as the workforce shrinks.

Up against them are the busy urban lifestyles and long working hours that leave little time for Japanese to start families and the rising costs of living that mean having a baby is simply too expensive for many young people. Then there are the cultural taboos that surround talking about fertility and patriarchal norms that work against mothers returning to work.

The big question, for the rest of Japan: Is Kentaro’s birth a sign of better times to come – or a miracle birth in a dying way of life.

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