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Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007


Population woes said best served by aiding women

Staff writer

Japan should champion greater opportunities for female and immigrant workers and set the trend in alleviating the problems it faces with its rapidly aging population — problems that are bound to confront all industrialized nations, visiting journalists from France told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

News photo
French journalists (from left) Marc Epstein of L'Express, Pauline Damour of Challenges, Frederic Lemaitre of Le Monde, Muriel Motte of Le Figaro and Philippe Escande of Les Echos take part in a Sept. 14 symposium at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The journalists cited the experience of France, where government steps to support working mothers have achieved a rare turnaround in the nation's birthrate since the 1990s.

The French journalists spoke Sept. 14 at a symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center, the public relations arm of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), after a weeklong series of exchanges with government officials, politicians, economists and businesspeople.

Giving his impression of the exchanges, Philippe Escande, an editorialist at the newspaper Les Echo, said it seems like Japan is shrouded in a national melancholy. "I wonder if Japan is in a midlife crisis, relishing its good old past while worried about its future," he told the audience.

Escande said the common source of concern voiced by the people here is Japan's depopulation trend — and the pessimistic scenario that its declining birthrate and aging population will curb consumption and investments in the future, bringing down the economy as a whole.

Japan's population as of March 31 declined by 1,554 from a year earlier to 127,053,471 for the second consecutive year of decline, with the elderly — defined as those aged 65 or older — accounting for a record 21 percent of the total.

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry forecast released in December said that assuming Japan's fertility rate will stand at the 2005 figure of 1.26, the population will fall to less than 90 million by 2055. The fertility rate — the estimated number of children born to a woman during her lifetime — rose to 1.32 in 2006 for the first increase in six years, but officials say the long-term downward trend remains unchanged.

Japan, however, should view the situation as an opportunity, Escande said, indicating the nation may be able to create new social, economic and industrial models as the first country to manage the demographic problem that will later hit every developed economy — and ultimately emerging economies like China as well.

France is often cited as a rare mature economy that has achieved a birthrate turnaround, and Escande said demography is not as serious a problem in his country as it is in Japan.

The fertility rate rose to 2.0 in France in 2006, up from 1.92 in the previous year and marking the highest level in 30 years, the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies said in January. The figure has been rising since it marked a low of 1.66 in 1994.

However, that does not mean the French are all that optimistic about their future, he said, noting many believe the social security situation in the years to come will be worse than today.

On ways to make up for its anticipated manpower shortage, Pauline Damour, a senior business reporter for the Challenges business monthly, urged Japan to be more positive about immigrant labor and make better use of women, who still face various disadvantages trying to keep working after childbirth.

Damour said France's birthrate turned upward as a result of various measures introduced by the government to help women continue working while raising children.

In France, government spending on financial support for families raising children accounts for about 3 percent of its gross domestic product, compared with roughly 0.6 percent in Japan, she said.

In Japan, women in managerial positions in companies and the public sector are still far fewer than in other industrialized countries, Damour said. No Japanese was among Forbes magazine's 2007 list of the 100 most influential women in the world, which was topped by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she added.

"Women do work in Japan, but the number of them in responsible positions are still low in comparison with world standards," she said, noting women account for only about 10 percent of company mangers in this country.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy has included six women in the Cabinet launched this year in a bid to achieve a better gender balance within his team, she said. The 17-member Cabinet launched last week by new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has only two female members — unchanged from that of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

Support for working mothers also depends on their employers, Damour said, citing the examples of an increasing number of American firms that have established nursery facilities at their offices.

Frederic Lemaitre, an editorialist with Le Monde, said French companies are legally required to make sure female employees who return to the job after childbirth hold the same position they vacated.

The companies are aware that failure to pay attention to such issues would crate a negative public image, he said, adding firms release data on the balance between male and female workers in every department so consumers have a favorable image.

But despite legal protections and court rulings that mandate equal pay among men and women who are in charge of the same kinds of jobs, discrepancies remain in many French companies, where women's wages are 15 percent to 20 percent lower than their male counterparts, Lemaitre said.

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