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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The fading pitter-patter of little feet


The flip-side of Japan's ever-aging population is that there are increasingly fewer kids. Record-low statistics from 2005 put the birthrate at 1.26 children per woman, a count that somehow sounds painful — but the real hurt is the one being put on Japanese society.

Pain, in a national sense, is always best expressed in money. In this case, as Japan fades from a Grumpy Old Men-present to a Children of Men-like tomorrow, the question is who's going pay for the transition?

Forget the pitter-patter of little feet. Oh, for the jingle-jangle of future tax payers! And with them a fresh wave of young couples pregnant with the desire for mortgages. Plus an influx of new teens shameless in their lust for more and more consumer goods.

Money talks and it clearly says that Japan's troubles with a top-heavy population have only just begun — a forceful statement that this past January prompted former Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa to exhort more women to get pregnant, dubbing them "birth-giving machines" in the process.

Yanagisawa took a lot of flak for that beauty, riling exactly 50 percent of voters, plus .63 of their total offspring each. His choice of words also suggests that, more than increased quantity, perhaps what Japan really needs is better quality.

Personally, I have only one feeling for future generations and the financial burden they will have to bear for the graying of Japanese society, and it is not pity. My lack of compassion is tied to the fact that I am now on the other side of the line. Every single day I contribute a bit more to the aging of the population.

Yet, my feeling has nothing to do with wanting the young to guarantee me a soft landing. No, the emotion I have for them is merely this: envy.

I'd trade my years for their financial hurdles any day. Especially these young. Because for them the expression, "Youth will be served," is going to be magnified several times over.

We can already see this in a variety of little ways. Take colleges, for example. Schools are already scrambling for the shrinking number of students, with many institutions fearful for their survival. Yet nobody is giving up yet.

An English-teaching Japanese friend at one Kanto-area college told me her faculty has been ordered to "sexy up" their curriculum two years in a row. This means less grammar, less reading, less lecture, less homework, and . . .

More video, more music, more games, more fun! The theory, she says, is that prospective students won't be able to resist the jazzier new course selections.

Set aside the thought that this might be just the happy medicine English teaching here needs. Forget, too, that I myself went to school in a different country at a different time. For this is the sort of education for me!

More than hunch at a desk and parse sentences, I would have much rather leaned back and absorbed the cultural content of "The Simpsons." Only in my day it would have been "Green Acres." So current youth is getting a bargain — with more on the way.

To meet labor shortages, the government will always be able to pull in workers from overseas. Yet I doubt the government will be trucking in foreign teens to slobber over the retail markets. Oodles of shops are going to go under, but before they do, oh what sales there will be. For a while, kids here are going to have more junk than ever.

Yet, who cares about bargain sales? I would just like to be young again. Gaining years hasn't been bad, but I wouldn't mind doing it all over — in an entirely different way of course.

Plus I figure — despite global warming, political tensions, tight finances and whatever — the kids of tomorrow are going to stand in the spotlight like no other generation before. Exciting? Probably. Challenging? For sure.

Too bad for me. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young.

"How about you?" I ask my wife. "Wouldn't you like to be young once more?"

"No," she says. "Then I'd be required to be a birth-giving machine. The national target is 2.1 kids per family and I don't know to produce that 0.1."

"Oh, the government would work that out."

The government, she insists, would not get anywhere near her.

"Besides, we have to find satisfaction now. And we're not that old. . . . "

But we're not getting any younger either. So we'd better take a good look around before our bifocals grow too thick.

For our times they are a fading. It's a young man's world and always has been.

In Japan there is just more of it now for the young to have.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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