Shinzo Abe

Why 'womenomics' won't be enough to turn the tide for shrinking Japan

Kevin Rafferty says entrenched male privilege and rigid bureaucracy stand in the way of change

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 6:46am

Japan is getting desperate about its increasingly grey future. This week, an advisory panel called upon the government to draw a line in the sand and maintain the country's population at 100 million by the year 2060. This is wishful thinking, reminiscent of King Canute ordering the incoming ocean to go back again.

At least Canute knew that the tide would recede soon after it had wet him through. Japan's problem is that its population, today at 127 million, is set on a steadily declining trend and is expected to fall to below 87 million by 2060, by which time nearly 40 per cent of Japanese will be aged 65 or over. It is projected to fall further, to around 43 million, by 2110.

What is wrong with the panel's recommendation is that governments do not produce people, at least not until dictators get control of human cloning mechanisms to produce people in their own image at will.

Governments need to be capable of joined-up adult thinking to understand what they can and cannot do, and which policies may have positive and negative persuasive values. There is not much sign that Japan is yet doing enough joined-up thinking.

The panel, which was headed by Akio Mimura, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did suggest that money should be diverted from the elderly and spent on improving child-rearing facilities and other childcare benefits instead, but that just begs a lot of questions.

Japan's fertility rate today is 1.41, and would need to get up to 2.07, the replacement rate, by 2030 to allow the population to stabilise at 100 million. This, in modern parlance, is a big ask, and would mean massive social and economic upheavals.

In the world league, Japan's is by no means the lowest rate; Singapore and Hong Kong, with 1.19 and 1.13 respectively, have even lower rates.

Most other places with lower fertility rates have maintained or increased their populations through immigration, something that Japan has set its face against, claiming ancient racial purity.

There are good reasons for doubting whether immigration would be an easy solution. Japan's economic and social system is protected by intricate bureaucratic and social rules, which cannot easily be dismantled. The bureaucracy at all levels resists change.

As an example, facing a shortage of more than 40,000 nurses, Japan imported already qualified nurses from Indonesia and the Philippines, who then had to pass stiff nursing tests, conducted in Japanese, while doing their normal nursing duties, before they could stay. In five years, only 96 of 741 foreign nurses passed. It was a lose-lose situation. A more flexible bureaucracy would have accepted the foreign nursing qualifications and given intensive language training or set practical exams testing the nurses' working abilities dealing with Japanese patients rather than their ability to use the difficult Japanese script.

The government's job is to set out a detailed map to examine options and explain how to boost the fertility rate, including which resources should be committed where.

It must consult the people, especially the young, to let them understand they have a stake in the problem before finalising the plan.

As Japan's population grows increasingly grey, the elderly have proportionally more political clout, reinforced by the gerrymandered political system which gives rural areas, dominated by the elderly, more power than densely packed urban areas, with bigger parliamentary constituencies.

Will the elderly happily make economic sacrifices for the benefit of the young? What size transfers would be needed and what sort of life would the increasingly ailing elderly have to put up with?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown himself to be full of ideas, some of them with good potential, but he has behaved rather like a conjuror, pulling a rabbit out of a hat and then moving on to another smart trick in case the audience realise it is only a trick.

He unveiled the "three arrows" of Abenomics, but seems to have got bored with the details of the all-important third arrow, structural reforms, and has now moved on to the need for reforms to the constitution and for a proper military.

Japan needs more than conjuring tricks. Its economy needs more than bows and arrows; it needs real reforms to stimulate growth and encourage young people to feel they have the wherewithal to feel comfortable and produce children.

Abe has embraced the idea that women must play a greater part. According to research by Goldman Sachs executive Kathy Matsui and her team, boosting women could add 13 per cent to Japan's gross domestic product. It must embrace more than building crèches, and look to tax measures, immigration and social reforms.

Japanese women are similar to immigrants in trying to find a way through entrenched bureaucratic and social systems of male privilege.

Will the elderly men who dominate Japan Inc be prepared to accept "womenomics"?

Beyond that is a subversive thought: what happens if the women accept "womenomics" but then don't want to have children?

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University