Japan's government pledged Friday to remove an income limit for child-rearing allowances in a draft policy package, alongside increasing benefits for families with multiple children in an effort to tackle the country's rapidly declining birthrate.
But the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stopped short of clarifying how it would fund such measures, including whether it intends to raise taxes, with critics labeling the initiatives as "pork barrel" policies in the run-up to a series of local elections in April.
Kishida, who took office in October 2021, has expressed his eagerness to bolster spending on child care in an attempt to tackle Japan's declining birthrate and shrinking population, saying that carrying out such policies on an "unprecedented" scale is one of the most pressing items on his agenda.
The number of babies born in Japan in 2022 fell to a new record low for the seventh consecutive year, dropping below 800,000 for the first time since record-keeping began in 1899, official data showed in February.
Currently, households with an income below a certain level receive a monthly allowance of 10,000 yen ($75) or 15,000 yen per child until they graduate from junior high school.
The government will eliminate the income ceiling and keep providing benefits to parents until their children graduate from high school, the draft said, but it did not go into specifics about how much money would be granted.
The draft also said the government will consider covering childbirth expenses through Japan's universal health insurance system and will make school lunches free at public elementary and junior high schools.
In the draft policy, Kishida's government has also promised to raise child care leave payments in an apparent attempt to enable more men to take time off of work and concentrate on parenting.
In Japan, 85.1 percent of eligible women took maternity leave in fiscal 2021 through March 2022, with only 13.97 percent of men doing so. Many workers say they worry that taking time off may increase colleagues' workload.
The prime minister has committed to implementing measures to allow 85 percent of male workers who have a child to take paternity leave by fiscal 2030.
Kishida told reporters later Friday the government will set up a new panel chaired by himself to discuss related issues, aiming to present a general framework for a budget focused on child care that will be "double" previous amounts.
The government will launch a new agency for overseeing child care policies on Saturday. Masanobu Ogura, the minister in charge of policies related to children, will be the Cabinet official responsible for the agency.
Ogura said at a press conference on Friday that the government will start a "national movement" later this year to deepen people's understanding of the importance of raising children.
Japan's public expenditure on measures related to family support stood at around 10 trillion yen in fiscal 2020, accounting for 2.01 percent of gross domestic product for that year, underscoring the degree to which the country has lagged behind developed European economies.
Sweden spent 3.46 percent, Britain 2.98 percent and France 2.81 percent of their GDP on child care, respectively, according to data released in fiscal 2018 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo.
As the government forges ahead to create what Kishida calls child care policies of an "unprecedented" scale, there are concerns among lawmakers and voters that the government may conduct tax hikes to finance the costs.
Despite being the world's third-largest economy, Japan's fiscal health is the worst among major developed countries, with debt more than twice the size of its annual GDP.