Japan's Birthrate Hits Low

Tokyo considers measures to address high costs of child-rearing

A COUPLE of years ago, university professor Naohiro Ogawa was rushed to a big Tokyo hospital. Despite his emergency, doctors told him that no beds were available - unless he was willing to be placed in the maternity ward. ``They told me only about 10 babies are born there every month,'' says Mr. Ogawa, who had his pick of beds in the nearly empty room.

That male patients now inhabit a once all-female domain is just one result of a rapid decline in Japan's birthrate. Last year, the rate hit a low of 10.1 per 1,000 persons. This is a drop from 34.5 right after World War II and the lowest rate among such advanced countries as the United States, West Germany, and Sweden.

While much debate has focused on how a shortage of offspring is rapidly turning Japan into the world's most aged society, little has been said about whether the birthrate should - or can - be increased. But in a sign of new concern, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu said in a March 2 policy speech, ``We must make an effort to positively support the desire of young people to have children - the future of Japan depends upon it.''

One reason for the high-level concern is that government health officials predicted in 1986 that the birth rate would go up. But it didn't. Last year, the number of births fell to 1.24 million, down 71,000 over the previous year. The fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman bears in a lifetime, declined to 1.66 in 1988, far lower than the 2.1 needed to keep a stable population level.

The decline worries executives of some industries. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association, whose prime customers are schools, would like to ignite a political movement to stop the trend.

``Someone has to light a fire,'' says director general Isao Mizuno.

Researchers say the major causes for the decline are delayed marriages and the rising costs of child-rearing. They say parental pressure to marry and have children has declined, contributing to a steady rise in the average age of marriage in 1986 to 28.3 for men and 25.6 for women.

Increasingly, working women are either becoming attached to their careers or simply enjoy the financial independence that allows them overseas travel or other leisure activities. Many young women fear that marriage will deprive them of their lifestyle, because society still expects a wife to stay home and bear children to continue the lineage of the husband's family.

``The issue is whether marriage is attractive for women,'' says Makoto Atoh, director of the Population Policy Studies Department of the Institute of Population Problems. An institute's survey revealed that young unmarried people find more merit in singlehood than in marriage.

Marriage consultant and matchmaker Yoko Itamoto says today's Japanese ``women want a family, money, and freedom.'' She has been surprised at how young men lack any idea of helping their future wives rear children.

For men, marriage is often delayed because Japan's corporate culture demands long working hours that leave little time for social life. ``The reason why they are coming here is not because they are unpopular among women,'' Ms. Itamoto says. ``They don't even have time for romance. They come here for an opportunity to meet a woman.''

Japan's poor housing conditions are dissuading many young people from marriage, experts also point out. ``It's strange that healthy young people do not marry as the nation has become affluent,'' says Shoji Yoneda, president of Future Forecast Institute Company. The drop of national fertility rate since 1985, according to Mr. Yoneda, ``coincides with the time when land prices started to soar.''

``In Japan, a humane life is not guaranteed. Everything runs for the benefit of companies and not for the individual people,'' says Keiko Kashiwagi, professor of psychology at Tokyo Women's Christian University.

A population institute opinion survey in 1982 also revealed that those women who decided to have no more than one or two children did so because of the economic costs, such as high university fees, plus the mental and physical burdens of child rearing, and limited house space. Asahi Life Insurance Company recommended in a March report that educational and housing costs be reduced to prevent a further lowering of Japan's birthrate.

The Health Ministry is planning countermeasures, such as expanding nurseries and day-care facilities for working mothers. But officials have a strong reluctance to be intrusive on such a personal matter as fertility.

Still, a ministry advisory council is weighing the idea of raising the present monthly allowance now given any parents who have a second and third child. The subsidy, started in 1971 as a welfare measure, provides about $16 for the second child, double for the third, until the child enters elementary school.

However, Fumiyo Hata, a 39-year-old working mother with two children, asks, ``Who will give birth for such an unrealistic amount of money?''

Economists warn that Japan should start preparing for an unavoidable slowdown of the economy. The second postwar baby boom generation, now entering university age, could be Japan's last big consuming and producing cohort.

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