The Secret Answer to Japan’s Baby Shortage Lies in a Tiny Remote Town
Visiting delegations trying to increase birth rates pay fees starting at $73 to get advice.
NAGI, Japan—Mayor Masachika Oku is worried about the children in this remote town getting tired. “They’re being chased by visitors with cameras every day,” he said.
The visitors, including Japan’s leader, are making the trek in search of a valuable secret that may lurk here: how to make more babies.
Women in Nagi, a town of about 5,700 people, on average bear more than two children. That figure makes it a standout in a country where the average is closer to one than two.
Fewer than 800,000 children were born in Japan last year, the lowest number since comparable records were first kept in 1899. It was about half the nearly 1.6 million deaths recorded.
Over three decades, the government has tried an Angel Plan, a New Angel Plan, a Child and Child-Rearing Cheering Plan and more, without much discernible difference. Some frustrated officials have concluded that the only step left is to go on a pilgrimage to Nagi, the town on which the gods of fertility have smiled.
Here they meet people like Yuri Takatori, 35, who is raising four boys.
“It’s quite common here to see a family with three or four children,” said Ms. Takatori, while holding her youngest, 7-month-old Kippei, on her lap.
She said her husband works long hours at a factory making industrial refrigerators, earning around $1,800 to $2,200 a month.
Despite a tight budget and lack of help at home, Ms. Takatori said she felt child-rearing was manageable. She credited aid from the town such as free medical care for all children as well as support from other moms and elderly women who help look after children.
At a park stocked with play equipment, Ai Todaka, 35, watched her 6-year-old daughter, Riko, holding her younger brother Aoi, 3, as they slid down a long winding slide together.
“The elder one begged for a baby because she envied her friends with many siblings,” said Ms. Todaka. “That’s why I had another one.”
Until a few years ago, Nagi’s claim to fame was serving as the model for the mystical “hidden leaf village” of ninjas depicted in the manga series “Naruto” by Masashi Kishimoto, who hails from the town. It also has a museum devoted to an extinct snail.
Then local media noticed the town’s birthrate. In 2019, it hit 2.95—the average number of babies a woman would bear if conditions that year lasted permanently. The number slipped a bit the next two years but still was 2.68 in 2021, the latest year for which data are available. Japan overall stands at about 1.3, while the figure in South Korea was just 0.78 last year.
The visitors learn that parents pay no more than $420 a month for daycare for their first child, half that price for their second child and no charge for a third. Parents get the equivalent of $1,000 a year for each child in high school. Caregivers also get help from elderly women who look after children for a nominal sum.
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