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Reconciling population and social expectations in Japan


Author: Chelsea Szendi Schieder, Aoyama Gakuin University

Japan was declared the world’s first “over-aged” society and a “shrinking pioneer society,” rapidly reversing the population pyramid on which the modern state was built. Since 1989, when the low fertility rate of 1.57 became a major social concern, the numbers have continued to decline. In June 2020, the Japanese government announced the preliminary results of the 2020 census, revealing that the number of births that year was the lowest ever.

Government efforts since the mid-1990s have focused on encouraging women to have more children. But even if every woman able to do so gave birth to three children over the next few years, it would not resolve the economic and social effects of the ongoing “baby bust”, namely the labor shortages in Japan and the pressing burden of pensions and care for the elderly. Short term. It would aggravate rather than resolve the larger crises associated with urban overpopulation and ecological devastation. The road ahead for Japan leads to uncharted territory, requiring flexible and creative plans to navigate it.

The 1995 Angel Plan and the 1999 New Angel Plan focused on supporting women who wanted to continue working while raising children. But urban daycares still have long waiting lists that force parents – overwhelmingly mothers – to give up work. Policies to encourage women to work harder ignore the ‘second shift’ of domestic work that often falls to women due to general economic insecurity which has also lowered the birth rate in Japan.

In Japan, the couple and motherhood are associated with a multitude of social demands around heterosexual marriage, the sexual division of labor and sacrifices at work and at home. Young people in Japan today are trapped in social systems forged by previous generations under very different circumstances. They tend to interpret any failure to meet certain pre-existing criteria associated with becoming an adult – including employment and marriage – as personal failures and feel powerless to change society.

If young people could be empowered to demand what they need to form the type of family they want, this would change the understanding of what constitutes family structure and ease the individual burden of child care. The current “baby bust” is already a collective charge the current system; the question then becomes how to articulate individual choices into collective demands.

Some government initiatives have attempted to exploit individual dissatisfaction with existing social pressures to revitalize rural areas hard hit by Japan’s demographic implosion. This requires a gap in the dominant concepts of success away from demanding jobs in urban areas considered prestigious. But policies that emphasize individual actions as solutions mask the government’s responsibility for creating such a deep socio-economic gap between peripheral regions and urban centers.

The government could do more to change the understanding of what constitutes responsibilities within a family and the definition of the family itself. Japanese Supreme Court ruling from June 2021 upholding a law that requires married couples to share a last name – a law that no other country has – is generally unpopular. Public opinion in favor of same sex marriage also differs from the government’s position. While same-sex partnerships are recognized in some areas, adoption is still out of the question for same-sex couples. Japan still only allows one type of family.

The demographic crisis poses a provocative challenge to definitions of a healthy society and economy, which benefit from both demographic and economic growth. “Degrowth” may be the best option to mitigate the ecological cost of decades of rapid growth. Some observers in Japan have tried to take a positive view of population decline, especially in rural areas. Yet it is difficult to know how many shrinking regions can replicate the few famous successes of rural rejuvenation. Along with the rural exodus, Japan will also have to fight against immigration. Many natalist arguments have presented the increase in immigration as an impossibility due to its unpopularity, but opinion polls show that the Japanese population is not categorically opposed to immigration or immigrants. Immigration can alleviate short-term labor shortages, and to be sustainable, it will require clear communication and support.

The solution to Japan’s demographic crisis will have to be an imaginative policy mix. The demographic crisis may provide an opportunity to question the premise of endless growth upon which many modern societies are built. Policies will need to adopt new beliefs about the value of caregiving, the meaning of family, and the opportunities for “degrowth”. Those who shape policy will need to carefully consider the economic, social and ecological realities experienced by young people in Japan and around the world. For this to happen, young people will need to become more empowered, even if they remain outnumbered.

Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a historian and professor in the Department of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Quarterly Forum, ‘Dealing with the Crisis in Japan’, Vol 13, No 3.