On The Radar: Birth rates in North Asia

As New Zealanders completed the Census this week, falling birth rates have been a hot topic across North Asia. Countries in the region have been revealing their official counts of the number of babies born in 2022 – and worrying about the economic impacts of their ageing populations. 

Japan, one of the oldest countries in the world, announced that the number of babies born in 2022 had slumped to a record low of fewer than 800,000 births. About twice as many people died as were born. The population is now 124.6 million, down from 128 million in 2008. 

In January, Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida issued a warning that Japan was “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions” and said that child-rearing support would become the government’s most important policy. He is due to announce a new spending package. However, others have noted that broader changes are also needed to improve conditions for women in the workforce. And as Bloomberg’s Kanoko Matsuyama writes, Japan’s work culture and the cost of education can make having children “a luxury”.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s birth rate is even lower; in fact, it is the lowest of any country in the OECD. And in 2022 it dropped further still to a record low of 0.78 (the average number of babies per South Korean woman over her reproductive life), compared to the OECD average of 1.59 (the rate for New Zealand was 1.66 in 2022). 

Both central and local governments in South Korea have been offering incentives to encourage couples to have more children.

In 2022, China’s population fell for the first time in six decades and the country recorded its lowest ever birth rate of 6.77 births per 1000 people. 

China revised its one-child policy, which was introduced in the 1980s, to two in 2016 and three in 2021. But commentators have noted that the one-child policy had already shaped the economy and society, making the adjustment to more children difficult for families.

Xu Congjian, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (China’s top political advisory body), said she would propose allowing unmarried women to access egg freezing. Fertility treatments are currently banned for unmarried women in China.

Many Southeast Asian countries have more youthful demographics, although low birth rates continue to cause concern in Thailand and Singapore. 

India is due to overtake China as the world’s most populous country this year, according to UN projections – although that milestone may have already happened because India hasn’t had a census since 2011 (as its 2021 Census was postponed). And people under the age of 25 account for more than 40 percent of India’s population.

- Asia Media Centre