Over the last month or so, the international media have been full of headlines about how the Japanese have lost their libido. Some blame cultural malaise, some an aversion to real human contact in a world increasingly dominated by virtual technologies. More prosaically, others point the finger at the ardour-dampening effects of economic insecurity. But whatever cause they cite, all draw the same conclusion: Japan’s low birth rate will lead inevitably to an irreversible decline in its population, and consequently in its economy.
According to many, the long decay has already begun. Japan’s population peaked at just over 128 million in 2010. Since then, the combination of an ageing population and one of the lowest fertility rates in the world – on average a Japanese woman can expect to have just 1.45 babies in her life – has meant that deaths have exceeded births. With mass immigration ruled out by politicians and public alike, the result has been a fall in Japan’s population over the last six years of almost 1.3 million.
According to official projections, the slump is set to continue. Last month, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research warned that Japan’s population was on track to fall to just 88 million by 2065, and to little more than 50 million by the end of the century. If the forecast is correct, many decades before then the economy will be in permanent recession. And long before that the Japanese government will be bankrupt, as the falling number of working-age taxpayers fails to generate enough revenue to support welfare payments to the growing share of elderly retirees.
There’s just one problem. The stories about Japan’s lost libido are all wrong, and the population forecasts likely to prove misleading. Japan’s women would be very happy to have more babies – enough to sustain the population above 100 million and to keep economic growth in positive territory. The trouble is that the government’s own policies have inadvertently proved a remarkably effective contraceptive.
A combination of social stigma and bureaucratic hostility means childbirth outside marriage is rare in Japan. As Neil Newman, Japan analyst at independent macroeconomic boutique Gavekal Research explains, would-be brides and mothers typically enter the workforce after university aged 22-25.
To qualify for maternity leave and child care leave in Japan it is necessary to have worked in the same job for at least one year. So assuming she has found Mr Right, an eager young lady must also establish her career before she can contemplate starting a family. In consequence, few Japanese women are in a position to have their first baby before they are in their late 20s.
By that time the clock is already ticking. Japanese government policy is to discourage women older than 35 from having babies, on the grounds that beyond that age the health risks are greater. To deter older mothers, hospitals progressively raise the price of childbirth with age, so the national health allowance of ¥420,000 (HK$474,000) covers less and less of the bill. The result is that Japanese women have a narrow window of just seven or eight years in which to do their child-bearing.
Then things get even more difficult. Any mother with a job needs to arrange day care for her infant. At more than ¥240,000 a month, private care is prohibitively expensive, so most families are forced to rely on public day care services. These, however, are not easy to access.
The means-tested points system used to determine eligibility is absurdly complex. And even if a couple does manage to navigate this bureaucratic obstacle course, they are still likely to be frustrated: places at public day care centres are in desperately short supply.
Under the current system, public kindergartens allocate places for the year that runs from April to April sequentially by birthday. So a child born on April 2 goes straight to the head of the queue. For summer babies born in July or August, the chances of securing a place deteriorate rapidly. And babies born in November or later don’t have a prayer.
This makes planning a family difficult. Conception must be timed with pinpoint accuracy to ensure a favourable birth date. The result is that women do not have even a seven-year child-bearing window, but rather seven three-month windows. Of course, many couples get their timing wrong; last year there were almost 50,000 children on the waiting list for public child care places. That’s enough to deter many couples from trying for a baby, and more than enough to prevent many trying for a second.
The good news for Japan’s demographic and economic future is that these absurd and antiquated policies are easy to reverse. And as more women reach the highest ranks of Japanese politics – Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike is the most prominent, but Japan now has three women cabinet ministers, including the social security minister, and a female leader of the opposition – it looks increasingly likely that they will be.
The government is on target to increase the number of public child care places by 600,000 over the five years to 2018. That will not only boost the birth rate – indeed the number of births in Tokyo has risen by 15,000 per year over the past few years. It will also encourage more Japanese women to go back to work – the rate of female participation in the labour force has climbed from 48.1 per cent five years ago to 54.4 per cent today.
As other anaphrodisiac and misogynistic government policies are rolled back, more Japanese families will choose to have children, and more women will choose to re-enter the work force, supporting both economic growth and tax revenues.
As a result, it looks highly possible that the supposedly apathetic Japanese will succeed in conceiving the 250,000 additional babies a year necessary to stave off the irreversible decline both of their population and of their economy. ■
Tom Holland is a former SCMP staffer who has been writing about Asian affairs for more than 20 years