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Sunday, Oct. 13, 2002


Japanese will have babies when living is easy

In the middle of September, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry released a set of countermeasures to address the declining birthrate, which Chikara Sakaguchi -- the head of the ministry -- has said will "sink Japan" if it remains as low as it is.

The measures comprise three main schemes: making employment and parenthood compatible, helping parents cope with the difficulties of child-rearing, and promoting parenthood to the next generation. Though some of these measures are more concrete than others, they all address specific obstacles.

In terms of the employment obstacle, which is considered the main reason married people aren't having children, the ministry advocates reduced overtime, paid parental leave and more available day care, ideas that are more or less institutionalized in Europe. Consequently, whenever the media wants to give people an idea of what Japan should aim for with regard to increasing its birthrate,they go to Europe.

A recent Asahi Shimbun series showed how each country adopts different measures to suit their respective cultures.

France, which has boosted its birthrate slightly from a low of 1.65 children per childbearing woman in 1993, is characterized as a family-oriented nation. The government allows maternal leave of up to three years. It also pays out allowances that increase with each additional child. (There's a saying in France that once a woman gives birth to her third child, she has enough money to retire).

Germany's birthrate hit a low of 1.24 in the mid-'90s, much lower than Japan's is now (1.33), and so the government mandated parental leave of up to three years and pushed for an increase in the construction of preschools nationwide.

The Japanese journalists who visit the government offices, the day-care centers and the retirement communities in Europe to report on how things should be done are always impressed, because they are there for the express purpose of being impressed. The welfare states of Europe cherish families, the reporters say, and their governments understand what it takes to get their citizens to make babies. Japan can learn a lot from them.

But what Japan can learn from Europe has little to do with social welfare.

Sweden, the perennial pinup for social welfare, went from a birthrate of 2.13 in 1990 to a rate of 1.55 in 2000, despite mandating up to 480 days of parental leave (combined leave for both parents) and what they call parents' insurance, which is paid partly by employers. Though this insurance has a cap, the government has increased it on almost an annual basis.

Italy's birthrate remains the lowest in the world, and the Italian government isn't doing anything about it. Some even think that America's would be comparatively low (it was 2.13 in 2000) if it weren't for all the immigrants it allows. In other words, Japan's birthrate of 1.33 isn't really that much different than those in other industrialized countries.

When the Japanese government and media look abroad for solutions, they're missing the main picture. If parental leave and government allowances are making a small difference in France and Germany, it's only because basic amenities such as comfortable, affordable housing and free public education are already in place. They aren't in Japan. In this regard, most of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry proposals are trivial, even laughable.

In fact, one wonders whether or not the bureaucrats stole some of their ideas from TV, which is now filled with variety programs featuring real families with real problems.

Among the measures proposed to assist parents are "public counseling centers" to help them cope with the strains of child-rearing and "life support services" to help young mothers with housework. The former idea is a common feature of many variety shows, and the latter has become something of a recent fad thanks to Shingo Mama, the helpful, cross-dressing housewife portrayed by SMAP's Shingo Katori. Things get even fuzzier with the measures aimed at future generations. One is to bring together junior high-school students and real live babies so that they can "experience contact," while another is reinforcing "food culture," meaning the cultivation of a greater appreciation for home cooking. How this will encourage people to have babies, the ministry doesn't say, but it sounds like they've been watching a few too many warmhearted cooking shows.

The parental leave measures are important, but since they are guidelines, they will require the participation of employers. If the past is any indication, such participation will be difficult if it isn't mandated by law. The only plausible measures that the government can assure are the one that calls for more public housing with built-in day-care centers and the one that guarantees payment into the national pension plan when employees take parental leave. It's doubtful that these measures by themselves will persuade people to have more babies. As civil society progresses, it is natural for the birthrate to go down. The bromide "Every child should be a wanted child" implies that babies are an option rather than an unavoidable fact of life.

It's no surprise that the government looks upon children as economic resources, and it's certainly their job to make it easier for people who want children to have them. But wouldn't it be more effective if they just made it easier for people to live comfortably?

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