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Seeking a life in balance

Government's veiled attempt to address labor shortage reeks and comes at the expense of children

by Michael Hassett

A task force set out earlier this year to bring more balance to the the grueling lifestyles that have become engrained in Japanese society over the past century. In November, a set of employment guidelines were formally adopted by the government.

The traditional lifestyle in Japan includes a job-devoted patriarch who dedicates 40 to 60 hours each week to his company and whose family is balanced by his wife, who spends her days at home taking care of the children in addition to cooking, cleaning, serving, washing, rinsing and repeating.

The government’s guidelines encourage male employees to spend fewer hours at the office each week, to take their yearly paid leave and child-care leave and to spend more time attending to their children and doing chores around the home. The guidelines also offer more employment opportunities for those between the ages of 60 and 64.

For women, the government is trying to boost job prospects for mothers before and after childbirth and for women who fall in the age range of 60 to 64, in addition to encouraging them to take their yearly paid holidays, according to an Asahi Shimbun article Oct. 18.

At present, women who aspire to a career and a family find themselves in one heck of a predicament.

Think about it. Most university graduates enter the workforce at the age of 22. If graduate school follows, a woman might not start drawing a paycheck until she is 24 or 25.

In a number of European countries, including Denmark, Finland and France, over half of all women between the ages of 20 and 24 are currently enrolled in school. More schooling among women in their early 20s is the trend here in Japan as well, Kay S. Hymowitz wrote in City Journal magazine in August.

Just a few decades ago, most women around their mid-20s were not completing their schooling and beginning their first job; they were marrying and having the first of several children.

After entering the workforce, today’s woman has just a few years to establish herself in her career before she must address any traditional longing for marriage and children that she might have.

As a result, the figures tell us what we should expect: Women are delaying the age at which they get married and have children.

Between 1994 and 2004, the number of Japanese women between the ages of 25 and 29 who were unmarried grew from 40 percent to 54 percent; in the 30- to 34-year-old age range, females who were unmarried increased from 14 to 27 percent, the City Journal report said.

Further, first-births in Japan continue to be delayed, a trend that Japan now shares with the majority of European countries as well as the United States. The national rate of late childbearing — births to women over the age of 40 — is at its highest level seen since 1960, according to a paper presented in March by Tomas Sobotka, Hans-Peter Kohler and Francesco C. Billari at the 2007 annual meeting of the Population Association of America in New York.

To keep a population stable, or at its replacement level, women must have an average of at least 2.1 children, Bruce Bawer wrote in his book, “While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within.”

In Japan, the fertility rate is currently around 1.3, which echoes a trend that is now the norm in many countries around the world.

The CIA’s World Factbook estimates the 2007 fertility rates to be 0.98 in Hong Kong, 1.28 in South Korea and 1.76 in Australia. And the trend is not limited to that part of the world. Three-quarters of Europeans now live in countries with fertility rates below 1.5, Hymowitz wrote in City Journal.

So, after a few years of getting herself somewhat settled in her career of choice — heaven forbid she desires to make any significant alterations to her career direction — the typical university-educated woman in her early 30s now has about 10 years to establish a marriage with a suitable partner and give birth to a few children.

Is there any doubt as to why Japan and much of the world is not even near the replacement level of 2.1?

The Japanese government’s plan to fix what they see as a developing problem is to basically encourage men to spend more time doing housework and caring for children — two tasks that have traditionally been performed by women in this country.

Will it work?

According to Matthew Loyd, who is currently doing graduate research in this field at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “a considerable (amount of) literature has developed on the gender division of household labor to explain why men have not contributed more to housework.

“Among the many theories advanced, two consistent explanations have emerged: economic exchange and gender ideology,” Loyd wrote in a paper he presented at the March Population Association meeting. “Economic exchange theories assume that the division of household labor is a product of a rational decision-making process between two individuals, based on their relative resources and constraints.

“Gender ideology theories assert that the division of household labor is a product of the social norms surrounding gender roles, and that doing housework is a predominant way people perform expected gender identities,” Loyd said.

In other words, the Japanese government has just bet the house on the economic exchange theory: Men will do more housework after engaging in rational discussions with their partners.

It certainly sounds rational, but would anyone realistically expect the majority of men to consistently perform a household duty, such as cooking dinner, day in and day out simply after taking part in a rational discussion?

And what appears to be lost in all this discussion about “work-life balance” are the most important elements of the balance: the children.

Will the government dare parade a sociologist up before us to convince us that our children are going to be better off with less maternal care? Or are we simply not supposed to notice that mothers working more will result in children interacting less with their own vibrant, or weary, mothers?

The government’s plan, unfortunately, reeks of being more of a veiled attempt to address the country’s growing labor shortage at the expense of our children. It simply doesn’t pass the smell test. As any parent can tell you, a young child sometimes gets that look, and if it looks rotten and smells rotten, guess what? — it’s rotten.

Flawed science also has such a stench.

As Takashi Kitazume wrote in The Japan Times on Nov. 9, 2006, the task force held two main tenets. First, countries that have reversed the decline in fertility rate, such as France and the Netherlands, tend to offer greater job flexibility and a diverse choice of lifestyles. Second, prefectures in Japan with a higher ratio of female labor participation tend to have a higher birthrate.

True. True.

However, if we take away the smoke and mirrors that the sociologists on this task force have used to make their point, the average person would realize that the fertility rates in France and the Netherlands have been inflated by a disproportionately high fertility rate among Muslim immigrants, which now account for 12 percent of the population in France, between 5 percent and 10 percent in the Netherlands and 20 percent in Switzerland, Bawer said in his book.

As for Japan, prefectures that have a greater percentage of women in the workforce and higher birthrates tend to be those with smaller populations: Tottori (ranked 47th out of 47), Shimane (46), Fukui (43), Saga (42) and the like.

Prefectures where birthrate and female labor participation are below the national average tend to be the larger ones: Tokyo (1), Osaka (2) and Kanagawa (3), to name the top three listed in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, the Statistics Bureau and the Statistical Research and Training Institute.

Would it not be more reasonable to conclude that mothers might be more inclined to procreate and work in more environment-friendly places in which the total commute to and from work is less than an hour a day instead of concrete labyrinths featuring total commutes two to three times as long?

The government should be recognized for some of its efforts, such as expanded child-care leave and shorter or more flexible working hours, but the greatest priority in today’s rapidly changing society should most likely remain the children, who should never have to sacrifice time away from their parents simply so a country can boost its GDP.