Japan’s Declining Birthrate and Aging Population – Commentary and Proposals

Various media have recently reported on the 2005 fertility statistics in Japan. According to the BBC, Japan's fertility rate in 2005 dropped to an average of 1.25 children per woman, down from 1.29 in 2004 and the lowest on record since recordkeeping began in 1947. This makes Japan's birthrate one of the lowest in the world. The average birthrate in developped countries is 1.6 children per woman, while the rate needed to prevent population decline is 2.1.

According to demographers and various politicians, this declining birthrate is will lead to labor shortages, a reduced tax base, and strain on the pension system. The declining birthrate is coupled with an aging society that will further strain the pension system, as the post-War baby boomers reach retirement age in the coming years. Also, Japan has one of the longest life expectancies in the world. But this blessing will also become a curse, when older people, to put it blunty, just won't die; thus becoming economic "liabilities" to the system. According to something I saw on the TV news, the proportion of people over 65 in Japan is already around 20 percent and this percentage is forecasted to reach a peak of about a third of the population in the next 15 years or so.

Returning to the subject of declining birthrates, I quote again from the BBC:

Japan's government last year began a five-year project to lift the rate, building more day-care centres and encouraging men's paternity leave.

But many Japanese women say it is social attitudes, rather than policies, which put them off getting married or having children.

Men are still expected to spend long hours at the office and little time at home, while there is pressure on women to give up work when they have children.

I agree with the sentiment of many Japanese women that 中途半端 (half-arsed) measures such as increasing day care centers or "encouraging" men to take paternity leave is not going to work. Many attitudes are deeply engrained in Japanese working culture. There is plenty of unpaid and unreported overtime, and Japanese workers seldom take all of their legally mandated holiday time. Meanwhile, many misogynistic right-wing political figures point their fingers at women – demanding that they return to their "rightful place": in the kitchen and in stirrups, pushing out babies.

No wonder Japanese women are putting off marriage and childbirth. With the societal demands and expectations placed upon Japanese wives, why would modern, educated women give up their independence by marrying? This is a pretty widespread phenomenon. Even Princess Sayako of the Japanese Imperial Family put off marriage until the age of 36.

Furthermore, many women who do marry are expected to quit their jobs after the wedding and to devote their time to be wives and mothers. This is part of corporate culture and very hard to change through legislation. When women do choose to reenter the work place after marriage and children, oftentimes the only jobs that are available to them are low-paying part-time jobs. So the paranoid prediction of a labor shortage due to low birthrates may not be completely true since many qualified women are simply under-employed or simply choosing not to work.

A Sign of Change

I found this article on about the role of co-ops in contemporary Japan. They are a relatively small but growing movement that is changing the labor market in Japan. Perhaps these kind of labor market changes will allow women to both be mothers and to work outside of their homes.

The article also points out another barrier that is hindering women from becoming full participants in the labor market, the dreaded "Milion Yen Wall":

Japan’s income tax law hits a household’s “secondary income” astonishingly hard above a quite low maximum in the middle-income brackets, a phenomenon infamous as the “hyaku-man-en kabe (百万円壁),” the “Million Yen Wall.”

Government policies designed to bolster “a breadwinner plus housewife” family system reinforce the particular ways Japan’s labor market fails women.
A wife who earns in excess of one million yen loses her dependent status and has to pay her own social security taxes and health insurance. Here, one million yen arbitrarily though not unrealistically equals ten thousand US dollars.
Effectively, the first $10,000 a dependent wife earns is tax exempt; but the next $7000 to $10,000 is a dead loss, all going to taxes of one kind or another. At the low hourly wages typical of jobs available to them, middle-aged women must expect to work 20 to 25 hours per week to earn $10,000 annually.

Taboo Topic: Immigration

There seems to be a deafening silence in public debate on the subject of immigration. Like all other economically developped countries, Japan also has its share of economic migrants, mostly from other parts of Asia and South America who take up mostly lower-paying industrial jobs. However, their numbers in Japan are proportionally far few than other economically developped and post-colonial countries.

One can argue on ethical grounds that Japan, a former colonial and imperialist country that has acheived economic sucess, should allow people from countries that it has formerly colonized and plundered to have a share of that success, as a way of making up for past wrongs. Of course, foreign aid and foreign investments are part of that package, but allowing immigrants from formerly conquered countries to come work and settle in Japan should also be part of the process of historical reconciliation.

Let me pause while some of you laugh out loud. Let's just look at Japan's track record when it comes to dealing with it's imperialist past: First, their is the ongoing textbook controversies about school textbooks that down play Japanese aggression and call the Rape of Nanjin an "incident" ("oops! some Chinese civilians might of tripped and fallen on some Japanese bayonets. Sumimasen deshita") Also, Japanese-Koreans, many who were forcibly brought to Japan as laborers during the colonial period were stripped of their Japanese citizenship after WWII. Many of their descendants continue to live in Japan with the legal status of foreigner, even 3 or 4 generations later.

Furthermore, it has taken the Comfort Women (慰安婦) who were forced into sexual acts with members of the Japanese Imperial Army DECADES, to get any sort of recognition whatsoever. Also, the Yasukuni Shrine registers continue to hold the names of Korean and Taiwanese soldiers who died fighting for the Japanese Imperical Army. Despite the objections and lawsuits filed by those soldiers families, the government and the courts have always supported the Shrine, so the names remain. (OK, I have lots more about the whole Yasukuni Shrine issue, but I'll save that for another rant)

So Japan, why not let in some more people from Asia immigrate to Japan? They will add to your tax base, keep the population vibrant and young, and smooth over some of those thorny PR issues you have with your neighbors.

Another Proposal

Here's another way Japan can keep their population young and vibrant. Let previous JET participants stay and settle in Japan after their 1 to 5 year stints on the programme.

I realize that not all JETs ever have the intention of staying in Japan, but those who want to stay should perhaps be given support of some kind from the government to smooth the transition from JET to other employment in Japan. JET participants would make great candidates for permanent immigration. They are already pre-screened by Japanese consulates and embassies abroad. They all have university degrees and are young, mostly in their 20s and early 30s. Many have good Japanese skills and real experience working and living in Japan for 1-5 years. Many have formed close connections with their communities, many of which are in more rural areas that could use more young people anyway. Many have entered into serious relationships with Japanese nationals.

The Japanese government could offer priority to former JET participants when applying for work or immigration visas for Japan. They could also help them with more information about how to stay in Japan after JET. I am sure that many JET participants have more to offer than just teaching English or translating. JETs bring their youthfulness and creativity to their communities. Many have creative and entrepreneurial spirits that could help brighten up and economically revitalize more marginalized regions of the country.

And with the many JET/Japanese couples being formed, they can help out the gene pool and the baby-making enterprise as well.

%d bloggers like this: