Monday, September 8, 2008
Birthrates in several prosperous East Asian countries are low and have been falling for a number of years. A recent article in the Washington Post explores some reasons for the low birth rate in Japan, which currently has a birth rate of 1.22 children per woman.
According to the article, Japanese women are putting off both marriage and childbirth. Nearly all children in Japan are born to married women, and the number of children born to married women has held steady for about 30 years. So the decline is due almost entirely to women increasingly deciding not to marry and not to have children. The percentage of women who remain single into their thirties has doubled since 1980.
According to one woman interviewed for the article, "I have never met a Japanese man who did not want me to be his mommy."
She has not closed the door on marriage and children. When she meets girlfriends for dinner, they ask each other, "Where are the good guys?" But she refuses to settle for a man who works long hours, declines to share in child-rearing and sees marriage mainly as a way to acquire lifetime live-in help.
"I want a mature, equal-partner kind of marriage," she said. "Anyway, there are complete lives without a baby."
Japanese culture does not appear to give women a chance to have a work/family balance. It's an either/or kind of thing.
"We need to organize our society so that women and families will be able to raise children while working," Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in an interview in May. "I think we still lack adequate efforts on that front."
This year, Fukuda's government is pushing a "work-life balance" program that addresses the country's famously punishing work ethic. It pressures companies to shoo workers (primarily men) out of the office at night. The intent is to improve the quality of family life and, in the process, make more babies.
The stakes are high here in the world's second-largest economy, which now has the world's highest proportion of people over 65 and lowest proportion of children under 15. According to a recent forecast, population loss will strip Japan of 70 percent of its workforce by 2050.
Like many other East Asian economies with a shrinking workforce, Japan desperately needs women to marry and have children while also continuing to work. But only about a third of women in Japan remain in the workforce after having a child, compared with about two-thirds of women in the United States.
The article notes that discrimination against women, particularly those with children, is widespread, and the overwhelming majority of Japanese men focus on work to the exclusion of family, Marriage alone reduces the time women have for their own interests, while the demands on men's time don't change. The demand for workers has empowered women which has led to changes in women's views, but men's views about women, marriage, and family have not changed at all. And at the same time, being an independent, single woman still carries a stigma.
The fact that women are increasingly remaining single despite the stigma should signal to the country that it needs to fundamentally rethink sex roles, work, and family.