Japan expects to see the number of newborns drop sharply next year after the number of pregnancies reported across the country fell 11.4 percent in the three months from May compared to a year earlier amid the coronavirus pandemic, the health ministry said Wednesday.
The tally underscores fears that the pandemic will further worsen the nation's already low birth rate, with the number of newborns hitting a record low of 865,000 last year. If the current trend continues, there could be fewer than 800,000 babies born next year.
The number of reported pregnancies saw the sharpest drop in May, falling 17.1 percent, followed by falls of 5.4 percent in June and 10.9 percent in July. The May figure mainly reflects the number of babies conceived in March, when unease about the pandemic began to grow.
The total remained around the same as last year in April, accounting for conceptions in February. Over 90 percent of pregnancies are reported to local governments within 11 weeks of conception.
The total pregnancies reported in the three-month period were down 26,331 to 204,482, with 67,919 reported in May, 67,115 in June and 69,448 in July, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said.
It is believed that many couples have postponed having children for economic reasons as the pandemic worsens the employment situation. Travel restrictions are also thought to have contributed in a country where many women return to their parents' homes to prepare for giving birth.
Measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in hospitals, including a controversial requirement for mask-wearing during delivery and restrictions on visits by expectant mothers' spouses and other family members, are also thought to have discouraged plans for children.
While the drop in reported pregnancies appears to reflect fewer conceptions, the ministry will see whether it could also reflect expectant mothers refraining from visiting hospitals for checkups or local government offices to report pregnancies due to the pandemic.
The data gauging the impact of the coronavirus on the number of births was compiled for the first time. The ministry plans to strengthen support measures to encourage new births.
A fall in newborns means a smaller future workforce to support soaring social security spending to cover pensions and medical care for the country's aging population.
Japan, with one of the world's highest life expectancies, is also its oldest society, with the highest percentage of elderly people anywhere in the world.
Katsuhiko Fujimori, a chief researcher at the 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 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.
All 47 prefectures logged a decline, with Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan seeing the biggest fall at 29.7 percent, followed by Aomori Prefecture to the country's northeast at 23.7 percent and Ishikawa Prefecture in central Japan at 22.5 percent.