The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Family Change and Low Fertility in Japan: How Useful Are Broad Comparative Theoretical Frameworks?   
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Family Change and Low Fertility in Japan: How Useful Are Broad Comparative Theoretical Frameworks?  

November 22, 2022


While low fertility is a trait Japan shares with many West and North European countries, there are patterns of demographic change, such as a shift to non-marital childbearing, that Japan does not seem to follow. In his presentation at a webinar hosted by the Foundation on August 29, 2022, James Raymo examines the behavioral and attitudinal features of Japan’s demographic landscape.

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Below-replacement fertility has long been a defining feature of Japan’s demographic landscape. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has been below 2.10 for nearly 50 years (since 1974) and below 1.50 for nearly 30 years. Low fertility is the primary cause of Japan’s rapid population aging and population decline and, as such, has emerged as a central policy focus.

Not surprisingly, there is a vast number of scholarly publications and popular press treatments of the causes and consequences of low fertility. Far less common, however, is careful evaluation of low fertility in Japan in the context of broad theoretical frameworks for understanding similar patterns of demographic change in most wealthy countries.

It is particularly striking that Japan is not typically included in discussions and evaluations of the second demographic transition (SDT). In a presentation at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research on August 29, I suggested that limited attention to Japan in the SDT literature reflects two distinctive features of its demographic landscape—one behavioral and the other attitudinal. The former is the rarity of non-marital childbearing and the latter is limited evidence of growth in either individuation or female empowerment.

What Is the Second Demographic Transition?

The SDT is a broad theoretical framework first introduced by demographers Ron Lesthaeghe and Dirk van de Kaa to describe mainly West European, post-baby-boom family and fertility patterns. This framework was subsequently developed to describe and understand complex interrelationships between low fertility rates, a range of novel demographic behaviors like the decoupling of marriage and childbearing, and changing values in countries characterized by long periods of below-replacement fertility.

The decoupling of marriage and fertility is arguably the single most important behavioral feature of the SDT. While growth in non-marital childbearing has been widely documented in Europe and the English-speaking countries, this fundamental feature of changing family formation has yet to occur in Japan or other low-fertility East Asian societies.

Given that many other behavioral changes associated with the SDT are clearly visible in Japan (for example, delays in marriage and childbearing, more lifelong singlehood, increases in cohabitation and premarital pregnancy, and relatively high divorce rates), the continued strength of the relationship between marriage and childbearing in Japan is not consistent with conventional articulations of the SDT. We therefore need to think carefully about the relevance of the SDT in a country like Japan where marriage remains the only acceptable setting for childbearing.

Other components of the SDT, especially increasing individuation and growth in women’s education, emancipation, and autonomy are also arguably of limited importance in the Japanese context. While it is clear that women have experienced dramatic increases in educational attainment and that female labor force participation rates are relatively high, Japan is one of the most gender-inegalitarian low-fertility countries. The male-female wage gap is among the largest in the OECD, the majority of women exit the labor force at least temporarily around the birth of their first child, and over half of female employees work in non-standard jobs. Furthermore, the division of household labor (domestic work and childrearing) is among the most unequal in the wealthy world.

My summary of attitudinal data showed that recent trends in Japan are generally consistent with expectations of the SDT, that is, more support for new forms of family behavior, greater emphasis on individual pursuits, and declining endorsement of highly differentiated work and family roles for men and women. At the same time, it is clear that attitudes consistent with expectations of the SDT are typically less prevalent in Japan than is the case in many European countries.

Patterns of Behavioral and Attitudinal Change

The goal of my presentation was to describe trends in behaviors and attitudes in Japan in an effort to understand whether the Japanese experience does or does not conform to the general patterns of behavioral and attitudinal change associated with the SDT in the West. The data upon which this descriptive overview was based include the Census, the Vital Statistics, the 15th National Fertility Survey, and the Japan General Social Survey. Given space constraints, I provide only a very brief summary of these data here, focusing primarily on the close link between marriage and childbearing and gender attitudes. For those interested in more detail, I encourage consultation of both the recorded presentation and the recently published research paper upon which it was based (Raymo, J.M. 2022. The second demographic transition in Japan: A review of the evidence. China Population and Development Studies,

One indicator of the onset of SDT is the year in which mean age at first birth was two years higher than the post-WWII minimum. This measure puts the beginning of the SDT in Japan in 1988, only a few years after Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands. Interestingly, trends in age-specific fertility rates show little evidence of recuperation at older ages. Japan thus clearly belongs to the group of countries in which very low levels of fertility have been less likely to reflect period effects followed by some recuperation at older ages and thus a reversal in TFR decline.

The data that I presented in this talk show that evidence of behavioral change associated with the SDT is mixed. Consistent with depictions of the SDT in Europe, Japan has experienced substantial delays in marriage and childbearing along with notable increases in non-marital cohabitation and divorce. However, non-marital childbearing has remained at negligibly low levels and cohabiting unions have not emerged as an alternative to marriage. In recent years, over 25% of couples cohabit prior to marriage and roughly 20% of marriages are preceded by pregnancy, but only 2% of births are registered to unmarried mothers, a figure that is vastly lower in than in almost all other low-fertility countries outside of East Asia.

The various explanations offered for this distinctive pattern of family formation in Japan include a history of legal discrimination against “illegitimate” children (especially with respect to inheritance), social stigmatization of unmarried mothers and bullying of their children, limited public income support for families, and the difficulty of balancing full-time employment and childrearing.

Japan’s Distinctive Path to Very Low Fertility

The fact that the prevalence of divorce and single parenthood in Japan is relatively high suggests that the continued strength of the link between marriage and childbearing reflects ideals and aspirations rather than inflexible normative sanctions against raising children in a single-parent family. These ideals and aspirations appear to reflect fundamental beliefs about the distinctive roles and contributions of mothers and fathers and the importance of providing children with both (at least until the marriage is no longer sustainable).

Attitudinal data present a similarly mixed picture, with support for conventional family patterns and gender roles declining but remaining at higher levels than in most SDT countries. For example, recent survey data show a dramatic decline over time in agreement with the statement “husbands should work outside and wives should take care of the home.” The percent of unmarried men agreeing (either strongly or somewhat) with this statement fell from over 60% in 1992 to 31% in 2015. At the same time, however, support for mothers staying at home and not working for pay while children are young remained at 73% among married women in 2015.

In a comparative study of attitudinal data from the World Values Survey, sociologist Mary Brinton showed that gender attitudes in Japan have become more egalitarian over time but remain far more conservative than in most European countries. Taken as a whole, the attitudinal data that I presented describe a distinctive path to very low fertility in which universal forces of social and family change interact with strong normative expectations of two-parent families characterized by a pronounced gender division of labor.

Given that some evidence from Japan is consistent with the SDT framework while other evidence is not, it is important to note that scholars have long recognized that there are multiple pathways to very low fertility, and perhaps multiple versions of the SDT. These pathways include change driven primarily by economic uncertainty. This explanation is arguably relevant for the changes observed in Japan, especially to the extent that growing economic uncertainty and wage stagnation make it increasingly difficult to form and maintain families characterized by a highly gendered division of labor.

Ultimately, an evaluation of the SDT in Japan comes down to how one defines the SDT. It is clear that the prototypical pattern of family change in Northern and Western Europe has only partially emerged in Japan. The same is true of attitudes, particularly those related to gender. If the SDT is defined as the emergence of extended periods of below-replacement fertility in the context of growing heterogeneity in family forms, then Japan is unquestionably a forerunner of the SDT.

If the SDT is defined such that these family changes are driven primarily by attitudinal change—especially women’s empowerment and independence—then it is hard to view Japan as a country in which the SDT is of much help in understanding low fertility.

    • Professor of Sociology and Henry Wendt III Professor of East Asian Studies, Princeton University
    • James M. Raymo
    • James M. Raymo

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