The demographic crises in Japan and Korea

I posted yesterday on a Foreign Affairs article about China’s fight against demographic decline. Here I include its analysis of other East Asian countries:

In 1989, Japan’s fertility rate dropped to its then lowest level: the “1.57 shock,” as it became known, induced Japanese authorities to expand childcare facilities and establish one of the world’s most generous systems of parental leave, at least on paper. After Taiwan and South Korea hit the same point in the early years of this century, their governments created new parental leave policies, expanded preschools, and offered financial bonuses to couples for having children. Singapore took an even more aggressive approach, establishing government-run matchmaking programs and public housing policies that strongly favor married couples.

None of these ambitious measures mattered much. Fertility rates are not merely well under the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, as is true for other aging countries such as Russia (1.8), Germany (1.6), or Italy (1.3). Hong Kong, South Korea’s rate is astonishingly low: 0.81 births per woman. By comparison, even geriatric Japan looks positively fecund at 1.37.

East Asia faces the same problems—high housing costs and demand for additional years of education—prompting young people globally to delay marriage and childbirth, or forego them altogether. However, as Taiwanese scholar Yen-hsin Alice Cheng notes, conservative social values play a particular role in East Asia. Roughly 40 percent of American births are out of wedlock. In Iceland, over 70 percent are. In Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, that figure is four percent, two percent, and 1.5 percent, respectively.

Behind declining marriage and birth rates lie highly gendered social expectations of who will take care of small children and elderly in-laws. Sweden and Japan have among the world’s best systems of paid paternity leave. In 2019, around 90 percent of Swedish fathers took it. Only 7.5 percent of Japanese fathers did.

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