TOKYO -- The Japanese haven't needed Murphy Brown's baby or Vice President Dan Quayle to get heated up over family values this summer.
In magazines, on television and in classrooms, the topic suddenly guaranteed to get strong expressions out of a normally shy population is whether a family needs a father.
"Tonight, I hear women saying they want to have children but they don't think they need a husband," said a dismayed man in his late 20s who gave his name only as Mizumata when an argument on family values got under way recently. "What they are saying really worries me."
For many women, who have found that Japan's "economic miracle" has filled their lives with choices their mothers never imagined, the question now is whether they want to get married.
For millions of men, the question is just as basic: How does one find a wife?
In a society taught from childhood that going to night school is the way to solve a problem, Japan's multibillion-dollar education-for-profit industry has seized men's troubles as a market. Its new product: a course on how to understand a woman.
Religious, youth and civic groups are using similar courses to attract new members. Mr. Mizumata was one of about 70 men who signed up for a three-month course in wife-hunting at Tokyo's Nippon Youth Hall.
"I've read books and articles and tried to figure out what it is that modern women want," Akira Ikeda, a 30-year-old assistant office manager, said as he waited for class to start.
"But I still haven't persuaded any woman I like to marry me."
Men are not the only part of Japanese society puzzling over the changes that women's lives have undergone a single generation.
If birthrates go on plunging, the heads of powerful corporations now publicly ask, where will Japan find the workers, the consumers, the savers and the taxpayers to keep business booming?
In its annual reminder of where the population is headed, the government said Japan had 21.6 million children last April 1, a plunge of 570,000 in a year and the 18th consecutive year of whopping declines.
About 17.4 percent of the population now is under 15, half the 36 percent that was recorded in most years before World War II.
As women marry years later, if at all, and have fewer children, if any, most estimates are that sometime early in the next century, Japan will become one of the first big economic powers to have an actual decline in population.
Faced with these prospects, young and old men alike can become adamant on behalf of the familiar household of father, mother and children. But young women can become equally adamant for the right to bring up children alone if they choose.
That was the way the class divided when the youth hall's wife-hunting course met one recent night.
"Don't you think Japan should give more humane treatment to illegitimate children?" sociologist Yoko Shoji asked more than 100 men and women who had gathered to hear her lecture on "What Good Is the Family?"
Life can be daunting for illegitimate children in this overwhelmingly traditional society.
The birth certificate of a child of an unmarried woman is branded "out of wedlock." That official designation becomes known to school officials, to companies where the grown child applies for work, to agencies that issue routine papers like driver's licenses.
For centuries, it has been commonplace for married men of even modest means to keep younger mistresses. The assumption long has been that a child listed as "out of wedlock" must be the offspring of one of these meanderings.
But the plight of these children did not arouse the men at the lecture as much as the fear that accepting them might make it even harder to talk a woman into marriage.
"If we accept illegitimate children equally with children born from marriages, it means we are accepting unmarried relationships, like love affairs," said one man. "That would have a bad effect on people who want to have normal, healthy marriages."
"What does 'healthy' mean?" shot back Naruko Oshima, 27.