The government is sowing money, hoping it will sprout children. It won’t, says Shukan Gendai (July 1-8).
Huge sums are involved and much is at stake. Various new family allowances add up to 3.5 trillion yen a year over three years. It’s a whole “different dimension,” says Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – justified, he says, as Japan’s “last chance” to reverse its precipitously declining birthrate.
Japan’s demographic “inverted pyramid” – the elderly overwhelmingly outnumbering the young (36.2 million over 64 versus 14.4 million under 15) – has been taking shape for decades. Other advanced nations travel the same road but more slowly. The rewards of modernity – vastly extended life spans coupled with all the new and dazzling things there are to do besides have and raise kids – are proving mixed blessings.
Never before in history – Japan’s and the world’s – have so many people living so long had so few children. In Japan in 2022 roughly 770,000 babies were born – as against 2.09 million in 1973 and 2.7 million in 1949.
Three million Japanese died in World War II. The nation itself had nearly died. The carnage over, the stunned apathy of defeat in part overcome, life regained a foothold. The nation revived and couples bred. Households, streets, schools, parks swarmed with children. The air rang with children’s voices. This was the first baby boom. The second came, inevitably, in the 1970s. The third never happened.
It was aborted, and Shukan Gendai relishes the irony. Half a century ago the expert, official and popular talk – in Japan and worldwide – was of population explosion. Our swelling numbers were a threat to the food supply, a drain on the environment. The oil shock of 1974 drove the point home. In Japan that year a government-sponsored Conference on Population recommended limiting births to two per household. A legal limit was never imposed. It didn’t have to be. The birth rate decline began then.
Earlier events had foreshadowed it. Occupied Japan’s population explosion alarmed the U.S.-led occupying powers. Would Japan be able to feed itself? Given a food crisis, real or imagined, would Japan once again turn militarist and invade its neighbors? Concern was such that the Occupation pressed the Diet to legalize abortion. That done, the 2.7 million births of 1949 fell to 1.75 million by 1955, rebounding only when the baby boomers came of age. No similar coming of age looms now.
The government’s fatal error, in Shukan Gendai’s view, is its exclusive focus, for all its “different dimension” talk, on one dimension, the economic. Certainly money is important. Earnings are low, jobs insecure, and child-rearing costs soaring, particularly those related to education. Children’s futures in a high-tech economy depend on long, intensive, expensive education. Couples unable to provide it may well decide it’s better not to have kids at all. (The average income of households with children is 8.14 million yen, up from 6.73 million 10 years ago; children have become “a luxury item,” the magazine comments.) Government payouts, generous as never before and in that sense truly a “different dimension,” may help offset that thinking.
But what of other dimensions – social, psychological, environmental? The bottom line is, why have kids? Lifestyles other than marriage, sexuality transcending two genders, asexuality, new pleasures, new enjoyments, new distractions, new freedoms, all conspire to make child-rearing seem rather dull in comparison, an oppressive crimp on life’s vastly expanding possibilities and potentials; and besides, global warming threatens the planet’s very existence. How long has the human race got, after all? Selfish considerations aside, is this a world to bring children into? In Japan as elsewhere, young adults are saying no and acting accordingly. Money isn’t likely to change their minds.
It’s a current sweeping the whole developed world. Japan’s birth rate is conspicuously low, but in no developed country is it high, and in few rising. Shukan Gendai finds one exception – one developed country where the birth rate is just high enough to perpetuate its current population: Israel.
What’s the answer, then? Immigration? Immigrants from less developed countries do tend to have higher birth rates – for one generation. The second generation merges with the general population and becomes in effect one with it, adopting its lifestyles and reproducing at its pace. Expanded tolerance of and support for children born out of wedlock? France is generally cited as the model to follow here – and yet lately France’s birthrate too is falling.
So good luck to the government with its “different dimension,” Shukan Gendai says in effect. Ill-considered, costly and ultimately futile attempts to jack up the population, it says, will only distract us from the one constructive thing we could be doing: accepting population decline as inevitable and devising strategies to adapt to it.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Arimasen.”© Japan Today