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Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

Welcome to the world we've made but don't want to share with children


Special to The Japan Times

"Love ... casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to the lover. ... It seems as if, in making a marriage, either the individual or the interest of the species must come off badly."

You have to dredge the annals of history assiduously to find a philosopher more cynical than Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) when it came to notions about women, marriage and the birth of children. In addition to the above remark, Schopenhauer also informed us that "woman is by nature meant to obey." Though he contemplated marriage on a number of occasions, he never took the plunge. To him, happiness and marriage with children were, at best, a contradiction in terms; at worst, a delusion.

I recalled these dark remonstrations when contemplating one of Japan's — and the developed world's — most serious problems: shōshika. This means low fertility and/or a declining birthrate.

With few exceptions, these advanced countries are facing a situation in which their population growth is insufficient to attain replacement level. As for Japan, it is estimated that the population will shrink by a third in the next 50 years. Numerous government studies and task forces have done little to nudge women and men together in the interests of reproduction. Vociferous urgings by male politicians, meanwhile, only turn everyone off.

What can be done to increase the birthrate in Japan?

The birthrates in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are also low. In fact, they started to decline in those countries earlier than in Japan. Women in Italy and Spain are also not becoming mothers, while — if you factored out the large number of children born to migrants in Germany and Holland, and to Hispanics in the United States — you would similarly find that replacement-level population growth is not being reached.

As for Japan, there has been a recent increase — to 1.4 — in the number of children a woman can be expected to give birth to. But because the number of women of childbearing age is decreasing, the total number of children being born is still not sufficient to halt or reverse the overall rate of population decline.

Moreover, one-third of Japanese women in their early 30s are single, and the birthrate in Tokyo is particularly low despite the high concentration of women of childbearing age in the capital.

In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, meanwhile, women who do get married are delaying it — to over the age of 29, compared with over 31 for men. Given the biological clock governing childbirth, marriage at a later age necessarily leads to fewer births overall — unless women giving birth out of wedlock were common (which it isn't).

Studies point to an inflexibility in the culture of employment in Japan as a contributing factor to shōshika. Typically irregular office hours and a necessity to demonstrate unstinting loyalty to the company over personal concerns make it hard for working women to maintain a family. Who is going to pick up a child from kindergarten? Can fathers be expected to compromise their careers to do so? Not many in Japan will accede to that.

In Japan, there are also high financial costs associated with educating children and ensuring they are afforded every opportunity to get on the fastest escalator going up. Add to this the insecurities of old age — insecurities heightened these days since fewer and fewer can expect their children or their eldest son's wife to care for them in their dotage, as was formerly the case. And then there's the not insignificant matter of a pension system that is often unreliable and insufficiently remunerative and the unpredictability of the job market.

The result is a society not exactly geared to catering for large families.

Besides all that, though, I cannot help but think it is people's attitudes, more than anything else, that mitigate against childbirth. That's because we live — and not only in Japan — in a society that simply does not view a large family as a desirable life choice. We have all become descendants of Schopenhauer.

Children are simply not a priority for people pursuing designer lifestyles. Young people are decidedly not alone in this. In fact, it is the older generation that inculcated these values into them. The media, driven by commercial interests, has exacerbated this tendency, encouraging women and men "to have it all" — "it" being material goods, lavish holidays, spectacular careers and acquired glamor.

Marriage and children are just two more of those boxes to tick. If they don't get ticked, well, there's always a high-definition telly and a week in Waikiki to be had.

Look at our dramas. They are more often than not about pitifully dysfunctional families. Indeed, popular culture poo-poos anything that smacks of an unattainable, or even undesirable, ideal — including a large family in a stable marriage.

When my children were at school in Australia, I was initially surprised when I saw the list of parents and guardians sent home by the school. That was because a child named, say, Fiona Johnson might have one parent/guardian named Harriet Gordon and another named William Green. Soon, however, I came to realize that many children were living in families with children from a previous marriage or marriages.

It struck me that here lay the answer — or one of the answers — to increasing the birthrate. The primary obstacle was not an absence of government social assistance policies or social protection expenditure, though these can be of absolute help to parents, single or otherwise. It was the attitudes of the people to mothers who want to bring up their children, either within or outside a marriage, and have a life in the process.

Japan suffers from a severe lack of socially acceptable alternative lifestyles. A young woman facing marriage and the prospect of childbirth in Japan today is wary of the total commitment that these entail. Will her partner truly share the burdens? If the marriage ends in divorce, how will she survive with her children? Enforcement of laws requiring dads to pay maintenance is notoriously lax. Japanese society is not kind to single mothers; and there are precious few places for them to meet a possible new partner. Not many Japanese men will marry a woman with children; and the society is largely intolerant of families with children from two different marriages living together.

Japan is in dire need of role models who manage to have a large family and find happiness there, of a society that makes it possible for mothers, single or attached, to work and thrive.

France, for one country, is striving to create such a society, and achieved, in 2006, the highest birthrate in Europe, at 2.01 children per woman of childbearing age. In contrast, in much of southern Europe, even where government policies have aided women, people's condescending attitudes to single mothers and children born out of wedlock have kept birthrates low.

Poor old Schopenhauer believed the old Roman fallacy: Illico post coitum cachinnus auditur Diaboli (Straight away after copulation you can hear the Devil laughing).

That's not only a recipe for post-coital depression; it's a revocation of one of society's constant goals — that of rejuvenation and the materialization of sanguine hope in our future.



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