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Japan seeks baby boom to defuse population timebomb

Published on 30/11/2009

Tokyo — There are many reasons Japan’s population is headed for a sharp decline, but one of them is that for working women giving birth usually spells the death of their careers.

The country’s new centre-left government — trying to defuse a ticking demographic timebomb — is working to change laws and mindsets in a bid to boost Japan’s birth rate, one of the world’s lowest.

It is up against entrenched attitudes about women in the workplace and motherhood, as one twenty-something mother-to-be experienced when her employer recently handed her a pre-written resignation letter.

"The personnel department just gave me the letter," she recalled. "I was told to copy it by hand, sign it and date it. When I didn’t do it immediately, the supervisor yelled at me."

"I finally gave in," said the woman, who worked at a big publishing house and asked not to be named. "In the end I was almost relieved to stop work, because the atmosphere in the office had just become so stifling."

Such cases are especially frequent for temporary workers such as the Tokyo woman, who said she had received no unemployment benefits since her ‘voluntary resignation’ when her boss showed her the door several months ago.

Japan’s new government, which ended half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule when it took power in September, has embarked on a campaign to make Japan a more equal and family-friendly nation.

The problem is existential for Japan, the world’s number two economy. Its population of about 127 million, on current trends, is projected to decline to 95 million by 2050.

That would leave the country with a ratio of only 1.5 economically active people per retiree by 2050 — compared to about three workers per retiree now.

Japan, famously reluctant to open up its doors to more than a trickle of immigrants, is in part banking on advances in robotics to care for its army of elderly in future.

The fertility rate, the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime, dropped below the population replacement level of 2.07 in the 1970s, setting the island-nation on the path for contraction.

It hit bottom at 1.26 in 2005 before creeping up to 1.37 last year.

To beat the drum for a new baby boom, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has appointed Mizuho Fukushima, leader of a junior coalition partner, as minister tasked tackling the declining birthrate and improving gender equality.

The former human rights lawyer — known for advocating that married women should be allowed to keep their maiden names — is seeking to bolster the number of nurseries and boost financial aid for women on maternity leave.

"Unfortunately 70 percent of women quit their jobs once they have a child. We want them to continue working throughout their active lives," Fukushima told AFP in a recent interview.

"Between work and the long commutes, people are exhausted when they get home," said Fukushima. "We need to regulate work hours to create a system in which men will be able to participate more in housework."

The government started allowing paternity leave several years ago, but the participation rate of fathers has hovered at a miniscule 1.2 percent.

The government plans other cash measures to help families — 26,000 yen (290 dollars) per month for every child until middle school, the abolition of high school enrolment fees, and new benefits for single-parent families.

"That way, we will be able to create a society where having children will no longer be considered a handicap," said Fukushima.

The news is not all grim. While Japan in many ways remains a deeply traditional and male-dominated society, attitudes toward working women are changing, albeit at a snail’s pace.

In a 1992 government survey, only 23 percent of Japanese said they supported the idea of women working after they give birth. That number had risen to 43 percent 15 years later.

"Little by little, Japanese society agrees that a woman can have children and work at the same time — that’s my personal view," said Yasuo Tanaka, a manager at the Centre for the Advancement of Working Women in Tokyo.

However, for sociologist Yuko Kawanishi, work is only one aspect of the fertility problem.

"The main reason is that Japanese tend to marry later and later in life, or not at all — and also the fact that it is very rare to have children born out of wedlock," she said.

Only three percent of Japanese babies are born to unmarried couples, compared to more than 50 percent in France and the Scandinavian countries and about 40 percent in the United States.

The main factor is widespread discrimination against children born out of wedlock who, under Japanese law, have rights to only half of the parental inheritance of their "legitimate" siblings.

Fukushima said she and Justice Minister Keiko Chiba are working to change the law as a step to encourage unmarried couples to have babies.