Japanese Company’s Pivot to Adult Diapers Underscores Crashing Fertility Rates Worldwide

Global fertility has been falling for decades, though the problem is often most acute in industrialized nations with high standards of living.

Catholic leaders have for years been warning of the decline in fertility rates worldwide.
Catholic leaders have for years been warning of the decline in fertility rates worldwide. (photo: Irina Zharkova / Shutterstock)

“Growth is anticipated.”

That’s how the Tokyo-based company Oji Holdings described the Japanese adult diaper economy last week. The company announced in a press release that it would be terminating its “domestic disposal diaper business for babies” later this year.

The baby diaper market in Japan is a “low-growth business,” the company indicated, though the 150-year-old company said it will not exit the diaper business altogether.

The company “aims to continue … focusing its resources on the market for the domestic disposable diapers business for adults, where growth is anticipated,” the press release said. 

Oji’s pivot toward adult diaper manufacturing underscores an ongoing crisis facing many developed nations around the world, Japan in particular: cratering fertility rates. 

Global fertility has been falling for decades, though the problem is often most acute in industrialized nations with high standards of living.

Many of these countries are well below the “replacement rate” of fertility — generally about 2.1 births per woman over her lifetime — needed to keep a population stable. In the U.S. the overall fertility rate is about 1.7; in the U.K. it’s about 1.5; in Germany it’s about 1.4. 

Japan, meanwhile, sits at about 1.3 births per woman. The country’s severely low fertility rate has persisted for decades; it has not been at replacement rate since roughly the 1970s. 

With so relatively few births of children, the country is growing steadily older: The International Monetary Fund in 2020 said that “with a median age of 48.4 years, Japan’s population is the world’s oldest,” with the government predicting that by 2060 “there will be almost one elderly person for each person of working age.”

The Church Has Warned of Cratering Fertility for Years

Catholic leaders have for years been warning of the decline in fertility rates worldwide. In 2022 Pope Francis described the ongoing collapse of fertility in Western countries as a “social emergency” and a sign of “new poverty,” with the Holy Father arguing that the “beauty of a family full of children” is “in danger of becoming a utopia, a dream difficult to realize.”

Vincenzo Bassi, the president of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe, told CNA in 2020 that “without children, without future workers, we cannot maintain the generational balance which is essential for the future, the economic future of Europe, of my country [Italy], and of the whole world.”

Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez, meanwhile, told Crux in 2021 that in addition to major “societal consequences” of low fertility, “the decrease of births means a decrease in our capacity to love and to cherish life.”

Laurie DeRose, an assistant professor in Catholic University of America’s sociology department, told CNA this week that aging and fertility crises have their roots in birth rates that began years ago. 

“[It] doesn’t matter so much what age people are dying on average (60, 70, 80, 90) as whether the number of new zero-year-olds is plentiful,” she said. 

“The average age is going to change a little if people die at 90 instead of 80 (a bit older), but it is going to change a whole lot if a newborn isn’t born,” she noted. 

“In other words, a baby not being born makes the population older for a long, long time whereas an elderly person not dying makes the population older for at most 30ish years.”

Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia as well as the director of the school’s National Marriage Project, told CNA that Japan “is an example of where things can go.” 

“I don’t think the U.S. is going to reach that point, but it’s emblematic of the demographic problems many countries are facing,” he said. 

Wilcox, who recently published the book Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, said Japan’s “workist” culture is partly responsible for its low fertility rate. 

“There’s an excessively intense work ethic in Japan, as with many East Asian countries, where people are expected to spend many long hours in the office,” Wilcox said. “A lot of Japanese women are not looking forward to a family life where the husband is going to be away from the home so frequently and for so long.”

Japan’s “struggling” demographic of young men is another factor, he said, with many young men floundering at schools and retreating to heavy internet usage, rendering them less suitable as potential boyfriends and husbands. 

“Young women [in Japan] are flourishing, educationally and otherwise, and are expecting a lot more from potential mates,” WIlcox said, “and their expectations are not always being met in significant numbers. That means less dating, less marriage, less children.”

Japan is also a “profoundly secular place,” he pointed out. Religious communities and institutions “tend to foster marriages and childbearing and parenthood, in part because of the social support, in part because they endow meaning and purpose to the sacrifice and suffering that’s attendant to family life.” 

DeRose said combatting workism in Japan could be a path forward to reversing its fertility woes. In a 2021 essay at American Affairs, she argued that policymakers “should think more in terms of enabling men and women to work less rather than seeking to help them still ‘do family’ while remaining career-centric.” 

Some solutions include “encouraging more flexible work arrangements” and “rolling back strict licensure and certification rules for work,” she wrote. 

Another solution could be “working toward gender egalitarianism in the home,” she told CNA. 

“Research on developed countries show that couples are much more likely to have another child if the father is involved in the domestic sphere,” she said.

Wilcox, meanwhile, was not hopeful about Japan’s prospects. “There’s already an effort to manage the demographic decline,” he said. “We’re talking about care robots [and] the age of retirement being raised.” 

Wilcox also warned about the likelihood of pressure mounting to provide assisted suicide to elderly adults, including through Canadian-style “medical assistance in dying (MAID)” programs.

“The practical and financial ability of the government and society to support older people will be strained,” he said. “There will be pressure to introduce measures.”

Japan’s endonym, Nippon, is translated as “the sun’s origin”; Japan itself has consequently often been referred to as “the Land of the Rising Sun.” Wilcox, however, said the country’s cratering fertility paints a grimmer picture for the ancient country and for others that soon may follow. 

“I call it the ‘Land of the Setting Sun,’” he said. “It’s certainly a harbinger of where many advanced countries are heading.”