TOKYO - Japan expects to see the number of newborns drop sharply next year, as the number of pregnancies reported across the country fell 11.4 percent in the 3 months from May compared to a year earlier due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, health ministry officials said Tuesday.
A government tally, seen by Kyodo News, underscores fears that the pandemic will worsen the nation's already low birth rate. It marks the first such figures released by the government, linking a drop in the number of births to the impact of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has caused a bleak economic outlook in the world's third-largest economy at a time when social security spending has soared to cover pensions and medical care for the country's aging population.
Japan, home to one of the world's longest-living populaces, is also one of the most aged societies, with the highest percentage of elderly people anywhere in the world.
The nation's dwindling number of newborns fell below 1 million for the first time in 2016 and fell to a record low of 865,000 last year. There are concerns that the number could dip below 800,000 next year if the current trend continues.
Measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in restrictions in hospital visits and presented difficulties for women who wish to return to their hometown to give birth. Combined with bleak economic prospects caused by a spike in unemployment, it is believed that many couples have decided postponed having children.
The latest data show reported pregnancies were down by 26,331 between May and July from a year earlier, highlighting the impact of the coronavirus since that time.
The data, released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, plans to strengthen the necessary support measures to encourage new births.
Katsuhiko Fujimori, a chief researcher at Mizuho Information & Research Institute, said that while Japan's total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime -- has declined since it peaked in 2015, the pandemic may further exacerbate the downward trend.
"There is a need to strengthen long-term initiatives concerning all aspects of childrearing. The onus is on the government and society to create an environment where people can feel comfortable giving birth and raising a child," he said.
Accounting for those who conceived in March, when unease about the pandemic began to grow, the month of May saw the sharpest drop of 17.1 percent from a year earlier to 67,919.
All 47 prefectures logged a decline, with Yamaguchi Prefecture seeing the biggest fall at 29.7 percent, followed by Aomori Prefecture at 23.7 percent and Ishikawa Prefecture at 22.5 percent.
The number of reported pregnancies in June fell 5.4 percent compared to last year to 67,115, with 39 prefectures recording a decline, while July saw numbers fall 10.9 percent to 69,448 with 43 prefectures seeing a decline.
Over 90 percent of pregnancies are reported to the relevant local governments within 11 weeks of conception. The number of pregnancies reported in April, which accounted for conceptions in February, remained around the same as last year.