Japan Struggles to Raise Birthrate

Government targets Japanese women who remain single into their 30s in pursuit of careers

RIKA KAWAI, age 24, single, working, and college-educated, is just the type of Japanese woman who annoys her government. She has "delayed" marriage and motherhood.

"I think raising a child would be an interesting experience, but I still want to work," Ms. Kawai says. "I don't think the system is yet in place to do both."

Kawai and other Japanese women like her have been the target of a year-long government campaign to raise the nation's birthrate, which ranks as the world's third lowest after Germany and Italy.

Despite a population of 124 million, Japan is short on Japanese.

Some demographers joke that if the present downtrend in reproduction continues, the Japanese race could be extinct in 700 years. Last year, the number of children under 14 years old was the lowest in postwar history.

Faced with the prospect of fewer workers to support a rapidly aging society, Japanese leaders asked 17 agencies and ministries last year to come up with ways to "to create a social environment that would enhance happiness and joy in child rearing."

The unspoken official goal is to somehow get more young people to marry and multiply.

The task is ominous in a society largely built more for work and rapid economic growth, and less for happy family life.

"There are economic, psychological, and housing problems that make it difficult to both work and raise children," says Kazuhiro Kobayashi, chief of the Health and Welfare Ministry's division for children's environment-building measures.

As more young people have become aware that their lifestyles lag behind those in the West, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa unveiled a slogan last year to turn Japan into a "livable superpower" and he set up a council to advise him how to do it.

"Public opinion polls show that while most Japanese believe Japan to be an economic power, many feel their quality of life has not kept pace with economic development," says Isamu Miyazaki, the group's chairman.

The government has given top priority to reducing working hours to bring Japan in line with Western nations. But employers have resisted slashing employee time by the requested 20 percent.

The primary blame for the dearth of tots is placed on the rising number of women in their 20s who are single. Single young men are not given nearly as much blame. One former minister even suggested that letting women go to college was not helping the nation's birthrate.

"I wish they would consider instead the working conditions for women," says Hiroko Takahashi, a professor at Kumamoto Junior College.

The birthrate has fallen steadily over the past few decades to 1.53 children per woman, defying a past prediction that it would not dip below 1.57. The latest prediction by the Health and Welfare Ministry is that the rate may drop to 1.38 by 1996 and then rise.

Such forecasts, however, rely in part on hopes of changing the attitudes of young women, one-third of whom live in urban areas while over half of Japanese women are in the workforce. Even though many younger women are unable to climb the career ladder, they are unattracted to the majority of men stuck in corporate treadmills and simply choose to enjoy their single lives well into their 30s.

This year the government improved subsidies for raising children. Parents with first-born babies, for instance, now get 5,000 yen ($38) a month for three years. Such bonuses, however, are small peanuts for most Japanese.

"It's like they're putting women on a string and saying: `We'll do this for you, so raise the birth rate'," says Kawai, a television assistant producer in Tokyo.

Officials keep a low profile in their efforts, fearing criticism that they are reviving a pre-war patriotic campaign that urged women to "Give Birth, Build Japan."

But their goals include: more maternity leave and child-care; cheaper housing; more playgrounds; less pressure on kids to pass the national university exam system; higher subsidies for child-support; and more counseling on child-rearing.

More than 95 local governments now offer cash rewards for the birth of a child. In the small town of Fukaura, where the population has dipped by one-third since the 1950s, couples who have a third child are given about $8,000. The town may also reward those who arrange marriages. An estimated one in five marriages in Japan are arranged.

One new national program allows high school students to "experience babies." But says critic Takahashi: "That's child's play."

"You must allow a girl to have hope and expectation. It's very discouraging for a girl when the only thing she sees is the poor working conditions for women," she says. In most offices, women are relegated to the lowest jobs, such as making tea.

"The competitiveness of Japanese society created this flawed social system," Takahashi adds.

A new law allows new parents working at large private firms to take up to one year of unpaid leave for child-care. But the law lacks an income guarantee.

And only a few corporations offer child-support allowances or day-care. On the other hand, many companies have an unwritten policy to fire women once they marry.

"It will take a generational change in the work place," says Kobayashi. "We have to wait for those managers who were brought up during the intense economic-growth era to leave. Younger people these days have more diverse values. There are fewer people who think job devotion is their ultimate goal."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Japan Struggles to Raise Birthrate
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today