Children’s Day and Japan’s future

Japan’s Children’s Day on May 5th had less to celebrate this year than ever before. The number of children in Japan dropped for the 30th straight year to a record low, according to a report from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry on May 2. Children under 15 now make up only 13 percent of the Japanese population, the lowest ratio of children among the 27 countries with populations over 40 million.

That ratio might not seem too bad, since most people would surely prefer smaller classes, less crowded trains or larger living spaces. And other countries, such as Germany, Poland and Italy, are also facing population declines due to low birth rates. However, the population decline, which according to the Ministry could lead Japan’s population to fall to 60 million by 2100, presents problems that must be addressed. Together with a record-high 23 percent of the population aged 65 or older, Japan is quickly becoming a very different country. Most of the worries about these population shifts focus on economic issues. Certainly, a minimum level of workers is needed to keep the economy going and more dependents for each productive worker could weaken social services and welfare. The question of what size population is best is more than an economic question; it involves a broader conception of what can improve the quality of life. Few people in any country would consider bringing up a child under stressful conditions. Countering the low birthrate will require extensive changes in many areas of Japanese life.

Before more young people will again feel confident in investing the time, money and effort needed to raise a child, they must be assured of help. More flexible working conditions, better child care options, affordable education and community support networks need to be assured. These require a basic shift in a broad spectrum of government policies. One small monetary handout and a pat on the back from the government will not be enough.

The resistance to having children is, in part, a plea for serious improvements in the conditions of daily life. Even though the country is slowly recovering from the Tohoku disaster, now is the time to undertake new and substantial changes in workplaces, schools and support networks. Until it becomes more comfortable, easy and fun to have children, the future of Japan, and its Children’s Day, will remain in question.