Declining birthrate worries Japanese business leaders

April 14, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- "The cry of Japanese women is that enough is enough!" the new head of the Japan Federation of Employers' Organizations declared.

In the pressures of Japan's company-dominated lifestyle, Eiji Suzuki wrote, too many women find that their husbands are rarely at home to help, so, "having children is too much of a financial, physical and psychological burden."

Mr. Suzuki is neither a child-welfare crusader nor a feminist. He is the head of one of Japan's small innermost circles of power-packed business federations.

What he's worried about is where Japan is going to find workers, savers and consumers to sustain its economy if it can't reverse the pressures that discourage young people from having babies.

His article, published in Chuo Koron magazine shortly after he became head of Nikkeiren last fall, expressed a fear that is slowly spreading among leading Japanese -- that many of the same conformist social values that gave shape to the postwar "economic miracle" may now be a deepening threat to the country's future prosperity.

The social and economic pressures Mr. Suzuki decried translate into numbers that have accumulated relentlessly throughout the most prosperous decades of Japan's history:

* Birthrates have dropped from 19.4 per 1,000 in 1973, at the peak of the second postwar baby boom, to 10 per thousand in 1990, the 11th consecutive year of decline. Health Ministry reports estimate that, with current trends, Japan's population could be in net decline by the end of the decade and could shrink from the 123,611,541 counted in last October's census to fewer than 85 million by 2088.

* The proportion of Japanese over age 65, an easily sustainable 11.6 percent as recently as 1989, is soaring. The elderly will surpass children under 15 as a proportion of population by 1997. By 2025, more than one Japanese in four will be 65 or older, a ratio that could gravely burden the country's limited welfare system.

* Japanese now marry years older than they traditionally did, if they marry at all, and then have fewer children and have them much later, or not at all. Last year's census showed that 37.3 percent of women ages 25 to 29 -- who bear about half of Japanese babies -- were unmarried, compared with 20.9 percent in 1975.

Population experts cite the trend toward ever-later marriage as a key to the persistence of Japan's baby bust even now, as the children of the second postwar baby boom are coming into childbearing age.

Women, in particular, find marriage less and less attractive.

Millions of women have better education and job prospects than ever, yet have trouble finding husbands who don't expect them to give up their careers and become traditional Japanese housewives and baby-tenders.

Jiro Arioka, a senior staff writer who covers population trends for the Asahi newspapers, wrote in a January article in Japan Quarterly that this nation is unique, even among industrialized countries, in how little resurgence its population growth shows when the children of past baby booms come of age.

Sanwa Bank has published reports suggesting that growth of the gross national product, which has stood robustly above 5 percent a year for decades, could decrease chronically to 2 percent or 3 percent for most of this decade as shortages of consumers, savers and workers begin to tell.

These worries make Japan the only populous country in Asia where leaders are calling for faster population growth.

"With an eye on tomorrow, we must strive to increase the desire of our young to have children," Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu told the Diet, Japan's parliament, in March 1990.

Mr. Suzuki is one of a growing minority among senior Japanese who are looking at root aspects of the population issue -- especially at the devastating impact that postwar corporate culture has had on family life in Japanese cities.

The cause of Japanese women's reluctance to marry, and then to have children, "lies in hounding them into a corner through the corporate-driven culture, making them the sole handlers of problems of housing and education," Mr. Suzuki wrote.

If Japanese companies want to have all the workers and managers they'll need in decades to come, Mr. Suzuki asserted, they'll have to encourage husbands to help with the housework -- even if that means giving up the corporation's traditional demand that men spend their evenings drinking with colleagues and their weekends golfing with business contacts.

But the most tangible steps the government has taken in response to the prime minister's call have been to offer a $37 monthly stipend for each child under age 3 -- double that for a third child -- and to order yet another round of reports on the scarcity of day-care facilities for children of working mothers.

Many young Japanese women see little chance that these measures will have an appreciable effect.

"I don't need another 5,000 yen a month," said Junko Tanaka, a 31-year-old assistant stockbroker.

"Most of my friends just don't see much advantage in getting married and starting families -- we have good incomes, and if we live with our parents, most of what we make is ours," she said. "I'm getting married this year, and after I do, I'll live in a tiny little apartment where there's no room for a clothes dryer, much less a baby. Rents and housing prices are so high in Tokyo, we'll never have a place big enough for children.

"My fiance wants a son," she added, "but we're already having disagreements. He can't give up his career, and I don't want to give up mine."

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