How Japan grew bored with love
It hardly seems fair to describe Makoto Nishio and Mayuko Suzuki as social miscreants. They are well-educated and ambitious, work hard and spare as much time as they can for family and friends.
Yet they and millions of other Japanese of their age group are vilified as conspirators in a slow and painful disappearing act – that of their own country.
They have helped set in motion a demographic time-bomb that no one has found a way to defuse because, in their thirties, they choose to remain single and childless.
Predictions of population decline in the industrial world are nothing new, but it is only now that Japan is taking seriously the unfolding crisis.
New figures published last week show that last year the birthrate hit a record low. If the trends persist, after peaking at 127.7 million next year, the population will go into decline: to 109 million by 2050 and a paltry 64 million by the end of the century, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo.
Long before then, Japan will encounter social and economic problems it is ill-equipped to deal with. The workforce will shrink, the pension system risks bankruptcy, negative economic growth will be the norm and higher tax and social security burdens will further blunt Japan’s competitive edge.
Faced with this apocalyptic prospect, the government’s message to the people is marry and have more children. The only problem is Japan isn’t listening.
Nishio is a 38-year-old mathematics graduate who worked as a ‘salaryman’ for four years before setting up his own computer systems consultancy almost 10 years ago. He has had girlfriends – his longest relationship lasted a couple of years – but loses interest long before talk of marriage surfaces.
‘I don’t have a life plan mapped out,’ says Nishio. ‘I’ve never thought, I must get married by this time, I must have children before I am a certain age. With me it’s mainly about economics. The economy collapsed in 1992 so I had to concentrate on my job. I didn’t think about anything else, least of all marriage.’
Nishio is not alone in seeing marriage and parenthood as an inconvenience; love, he says, can sustain a partnership only for so long. ‘I think love survives for the first two or three years but starts to suffer after marriage and when children come along.’
He is one of a growing number of Japanese men who find fulfilment in work and leisure, and who choose, sometimes well into their forties, to live with their parents, or, in Nishio’s case, with his mother. About half of all single Japanese men aged from 25-39 – three million of them – live with their parents.
In Nishio’s case, nothing is allowed to get in the way of his tennis. ‘If I married I wouldn’t have time to play tennis,’ he says.’The ideal thing would be to meet my future wife on the court.’
His ambivalence is shared by a growing number of Japanese – both men and women. One in four women aged 30-34 were single in 2000, compared with 7 per cent 30 years ago. The number of single men in the same age group has reached 43 per cent. ‘The people who blame us for society’s problems are being unreasonable,’ says Suzuki, a single 30-year-old. ‘As long as we’re happy, no one has any right to interfere. Women have babies in their forties, so I’m not worried. I’m going to get married and have a baby, just not now.’
The consequence is that Japanese children are becoming an endangered species.
The number of under-15s has fallen every year for the past quarter of a century, accounting for a record low of 14 per cent of the population. Class sizes are down. Theme parks are closing for lack of revenue. Entering Japan’s best universities is becoming easier for lack of competition.
In response, authorities are dreaming up novel ways to increase the birthrate. In the town of Yamatsuri, for example, women receive one million yen (£5,000) if they have a third child and in Ishikawa families with three children can get discounts at shops and restaurants. At the national level, the government has urged businesses to cut down on overtime so men can spend more time with their children, or be left with the energy to father more.
Despite years of warnings, calls for a coherent national policy to encourage childbirth have only just started to resonate in the male-dominated parliament.
When Seiko Noda, a 44-year-old MP in the Liberal Democratic party who has failed to conceive through in vitro fertilisation, urged the government to make it easier for working women to have children, a male colleague said ‘barren women like her’ had no right to contribute to the debate.
Noda, tipped by some to become Japan’s first women Prime Minister, wants to raise benefits to new parents from 5,000 yen (£25) to 50,000 yen (£250) a month and for women to be encouraged to return to work after giving birth.
Her message is beginning to get through. In April, companies that employ more than 300 workers were told to submit plans to encourage their staff to have children. But few experts believe that the corporate sector, emerging from more than a decade of recession, will follow up good intentions by providing creches, cutting down on overtime and allowing male employees to work more from home, and rehiring women who leave to give birth.
But changing work practices could prove easier than changing the minds of a new generation of Japanese whose ambivalence towards marriage and having children are firmly entrenched.
It is not that Suzuki, a part-time company employee, has been unlucky in love: she has been with her boyfriend for 10 years and the two have made loose plans to marry. ‘I just didn’t have time to get married. I’m not making excuses; I did exactly what I wanted to do.’
Part of the problem, she says, lies with men. Japanese husbands with at least one child under six spend only 21 minutes a day with their off spring. In their defence they say they are the victims of a corporate culture that expects absolute devotion to the company.
Women are expected to do the bulk of the housework and child-rearing, often holding down poorly paid part-time jobs at the same time. It is an increasingly unattractive proposition.
Suzuki says her choice to remain single and childless, at least for now, was influenced by her mother’s experience. Her father died when she was 18, leaving his company in the hands of his wife, who was not qualified to run it. ‘I saw how much trouble she was in,’ she says. ‘I decided I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me. Nobody can take control of my life; I’m the one in charge.’
· Every day 200 million couples make love around the world, 400,000 babies are born and 140,000 people die.
· Every second five people are born and two die, a net gain of three people. At this rate, the world population will double every 40 years and will be 12 billion 40 years from now.
· In AD1000 the world population was 400m. In 1750 it was about 800m, in 1850 a billion more and by 1950, another billion. Then it took just 50 years to double.
· The US Census Bureau reported that the six-billionth person was born at 1.24am on Sunday 18 July 1999. Autor: Justin McCurry