PM warns Japan on brink of social dysfunction amid falling birthrate

Satoshi Iizuka, Kyodo News

Posted at Jan 23 2023 03:47 PM

A father and his children walk past instant noodles packages displayed in the 'Instant Noodles History Cube' at the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama, Japan, Sept. 15, 2021. Franck Robichon, EPA-EFE/File
A father and his children walk past instant noodles packages displayed in the 'Instant Noodles History Cube' at the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama, Japan, Sept. 15, 2021. Franck Robichon, EPA-EFE/File

TOKYO — Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned Monday that Japan is "on the brink" of losing its social function due to its rapidly declining birthrate, pledging to focus on child-rearing policies as the most pressing agenda item this year.

In his policy speech at the beginning of a 150-day regular parliamentary session, Kishida voiced his readiness to revive the world's third-largest economy, beset by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to play a leading role in diplomacy as this year's chair of the Group of Seven summit.

The prime minister also apologized for the resignations of four ministers within the span of around two months last year. They were effectively sacked in the face of criticism for scandals, including questionable links to the controversial Unification Church.

Kishida's address comes after a government estimate released in December showed annual births in Japan are likely to have fallen below 800,000 for the first time in 2022.

Calling policies aimed at facilitating child-rearing "the most effective investment for the future," Kishida vowed to "create a children-first economy and society" to reverse the country's plummeting birthrate that is hampering longer-term productivity growth.

As the Children and Families Agency, a new governmental body to oversee child policies, is scheduled to be launched in April, Kishida said his administration will map out an outline of a plan by June to double the budget related to child-rearing down the road.

"We will consider how society as a whole can stably support children while making various efforts," Kishida said, without elaborating on how to finance the costs.

On the macroeconomic front, Kishida called for lawmakers to join hands to put Japan on a "new growth track" in the wake of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Kishida said wage expansion is a key to achieving a "virtuous cycle" of redistributing increased earnings of companies to their workers and stimulating consumer spending, which has been weighed down by the sharpest inflation in over 40 years. 

Japan's core consumer price index, excluding volatile fresh food items, gained 4.0 percent from a year earlier in December, the highest level since 1981.

Kishida emphasized the need for wage growth that exceeds the current inflation rate, driven up by higher global food and energy prices in the wake of Russia's aggression against Ukraine since February last year.

As about 3 years have passed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Kishida expressed his intention to downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 this spring to a Class 5 disease, the same level as seasonal influenza.

He also said his government, formed in October 2021, will take the necessary steps to overcome the ongoing eighth wave of infections.

With Japan slated to host the G-7 summit in May in his home constituency of Hiroshima, Kishida said he will show a strong commitment at the meeting to upholding a "free and open international order" based on the rule of law amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The premier added he will demonstrate unity at the G-7 gathering in the western Japan city, devastated by a 1945 US atomic bombing, while trying to strengthen ties with the "Global South," or developing nations in such areas as Asia, Africa and Latin America.

On national security, Kishida said his administration will "take measures" to procure sufficient funds to attain its goal of almost doubling its annual defense spending to around 2 percent of gross domestic product over the next five years, on par with NATO members.

In December, Japan decided to acquire enemy base strike capabilities to deter attacks on its territory and boost defense spending against a backdrop of mounting military threats from its neighbors -- China, Russia and North Korea.

Kishida, meanwhile, reiterated his eagerness to establish "constructive and stable" relations with China and "communicate closely" with South Korea.

Tokyo has been at odds with Beijing over Taiwan. Japan-South Korea ties have sunk to their worst level in decades under President Yoon Suk Yeol's predecessor, Moon Jae In, in the aftermath of a dispute over wartime labor.

In recent months, the approval ratings for Kishida's Cabinet have been plunging as suspicious connections were revealed between many lawmakers belonging to his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Unification Church, often labeled as a cult.

Kishida said he is taking issues surrounding the religious group, known for its aggressive donation solicitations and other fundraising practices, "seriously," adding the government will strive to prevent similar problems from happening again.