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As Japan’s birthrate drops, runner freezes her eggs to sustain motherhood dream

As Japan’s birthrate drops, runner freezes her eggs to sustain motherhood dream

Japanese champion runner Tomomi Bitoh completed a 170-km (106-mile) race in the Himalayas last November, and immediately made a beeline for a Tokyo clinic to begin freezing her eggs, hoping to keep alive her dream of becoming a mother.

The 33-year-old former childcare worker is one of a growing number of Japanese women joining in a trend authorities in the world’s most advanced ageing society hope will stem further declines in the birthrate.

“I have this big dream of becoming number one in the world,” said Bitoh, who placed second among women in the 2021 Marathon des Sables, regarded as one of the world’s toughest long-distance races.

“I don’t think that’s something I can do 10 or 20 years from now, after having a child. It’s now or never.”

The average number of children born to a Japanese woman fell to a fresh low of 1.20 in 2023, data from the health ministry showed on Wednesday.

That marks an eighth successive year of decline and is far below the 2.07 experts say is necessary to maintain a stable population.

Japan calls its demographic woes a “quiet national emergency” that stifles growth and strains its social security system.

The government, which says the difficulty of balancing a career and child-rearing is among the key deterrents to having children, has earmarked billions of dollars for efforts it hopes will reverse the trend.

Last year authorities in the capital started offering subsidies of up to 300,000 yen ($1,900) for women aged between 18 and 39 to have their eggs frozen for future pregnancies.

So far, the signs are not encouraging.

As many as 55% of single men and women in their late teens and 20s have no desire to ever have a child, an annual poll by Rohto Pharmaceutical showed in December, the first time that a majority of respondents has made that choice.

In 2023, Tokyo’s birth rate dipped below 1 for the first time, ministry data showed.

“It is getting hard for young people to have bright prospects,” city officials said in a statement. “That could be one of the factors behind the declining child births.”

They called for the central government to tackle the problems and find fundamental solutions.

Bitoh urged more public support for families who are bringing up children, as well as a shift away from a traditional outlook that burdens women with domestic work.

“It costs a lot of money to raise children,” she said. “And men find it harder than women to take childcare leave. Improvements in such areas would make people become more positive about having children.”

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