Foreign Policy Blogs

Birthrate plummets for 30th straight year

The Internal Affairs and Communication Ministry announced Monday that the number of children under 15 in Japan has reached a record low of 16.93 million after the 30th straight year of decline. Children account for 13.2 percent of the population. On the other hand, seniors 65 and older account for a record high of 23.2 percent of the population. By comparison, the global average for children under 15 is 26.3 percent, while seniors 65 and older is 7.9 percent. In the U.S. children under 15 account for 20.1 percent of the population, while seniors 65 and older account for 13.1 percent.

I blame Japan’s low fertility on several factors, namely the high cost-of-living in Japan, Japanese work culture and Japan’s stubborn clinging to medieval gender roles.

High cost-of-living

Prices in Japan are 38 percent higher than the U.S., and purchasing power is 16 percent lower. I won’t go into all the reasons prices are so much higher, which would be another blog altogether, but the prohibitive cost-of-living is often cited as the main reason young couples don’t have children. The costs associated with a child’s education are also insanely high, with one estimate putting the price tag of a kindergarten through 12th grade education at $150,000. I recently discovered the backpacks one of my elementary schools requires sets parents back by $400. In Japan’s non-confrontational society, parents accept and don’t question why children need $400 backpacks.

Japanese work culture

Japanese work culture also contributes to Japan’s low fertility. In Japanese companies an employee is often hired for life right after graduation. Employees start in entry-level positions, and promotions and raises are based primarily on seniority. (This also contributes to Japan’s high cost-of-living, with some companies having hundreds of employees performing redundant jobs.) If someone quits a job for a higher-paying job, they are seen as disloyal and fickle, which will actually hinder their employment opportunities, no matter how skilled they are. There are no such things as “free agents” in Japan. Women are often forced out of their jobs when they get pregnant because companies don’t consider it fair to the male employees that a woman may take off months at a time because she chooses to have a baby. If a woman does want to reenter the work force after having a child, she will be starting all over again in an entry-level position, no matter how much expertise she acquired before taking off to have a baby. Therefore women try to cushion themselves financially before having children, which pushes back the age they have children.

Medieval gender roles

The final reason for Japan’s low fertility is the fact that the country is clinging to traditional gender roles in a time when they no longer apply. Japan is still a male-dominated society (which I touched on above), and has condescending views toward women’s rights. Women are expected to stop working to raise their children, so female employees are seen as temporary workers. Therefore women with more education and better communication skills than their male counterparts are relegated to menial clerical jobs such as answering the phone and serving tea to their male coworkers. Women glean information about women’s rights in Western societies from movies and wish for the same, while Japan’s male-dominated society resists change. Many women go on what Michael Zielenziger calls a “womb strike” (see Resources page). They hope for more than being a domestic servant to a domineering Japanese man, and resist marriage. Japan is also a “homosocial” society, where men and women don’t mix in casual friendships. Walk downtown in any Japanese city at night, and every group of friends you’ll encounter making the rounds at bars will be exclusively male or female. Women are put off and intimidated by the packs of dudes, and the guys are scared of approaching a woman surrounded by her girlfriends. Men don’t know how to talk to women, so when they do talk, they either come off as awkward or a total pig. Arranged marriages are still common in Japan by necessity.

If the Japanese want to raise their birthrate to a level that the younger generation can support the growing ranks of seniors crushing the society and not go extinct in 950 years at the current rate of decline, then Japan will have to evaluate its gender roles and stop accepting extortionately high prices as the norm.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]