Ah, no kids afoot: Empty trains, work till you die

Some figure birthrate drop will make more room, job options, better life, but it'll cost

by Mayumi Negishi

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing in the media and government about Japan’s population implosion. A breakdown in the pension system, soaring health-care costs, slower economic growth and a looming labor shortage are just a few of the dark clouds on the horizon.

But is a declining birthrate really so bad? It could mean more living space in the home, more teachers per student and more available jobs.

It could also mean more opportunities for women in a workplace that will become, by necessity, less dominated by men. And it may mean less competition and more time for the pursuit of happiness.

At least, that’s what Manabu Akagawa, author of “Kodomo ga Hette Nani ga Warui?” (“What’s Wrong with Fewer Kids?”), reckons.

“Since the Meiji Era, Japan has been straining to grow beyond its limits,” said Akagawa, a lecturer in anthropology at Shinshu University in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

Since writing the book in 2004, Akagawa has continued to scoff at government measures to encourage people to have more children, such as those announced earlier this week.

“This is a good time to slow down and take a good look at our priorities as a society,” he said.

Japan’s population was 56 million in 1920 when the first census was conducted. Now it is 126.9 million and Akagawa believes this is too many people for a small string of islands with a total area of less than 378,000 sq. km, nearly three-fourths of which is mountainous, even though the population is concentrated mainly in three large metropolitan plains.

He is not alone in his criticism of the government’s efforts to keep the population numbers up. Takuro Morinaga, a visiting researcher at Mitsubishi UFJ Research & Consulting Co., said negativity and fretting about the future of the pension and social welfare systems solves nothing.

The reality is that Japan is aging, and society needs to come to terms with that, he said. People over 65 years of age already make up at least 30 percent of the population in 794 municipalities in Japan, he noted. In 2025, that is likely to be true for the country as a whole.

But “even if the birthrate continues to decline and the workforce shrinks, per capita income will grow because investment in labor-saving technology will increase and productivity will go up,” Morinaga figured in an e-mail interview.

He listed many ways that Japan stands to benefit from a declining population: less crowded trains and vacation spots, more spacious and less expensive housing, and fewer traffic jams.

This assumption, however, doesn’t take into account the possibility of fewer trains, and railroad employees, if ridership falls, and the realities of urban real estate ownership, with its restricted parameters.

“We will not be able to sustain the pension system (if the population keeps falling), but that can be solved by creating a society where we (all) work for life,” Morinaga said.

But easier commutes and literal lifetime employment are small consolation for businesses facing the prospect of a labor shortage. Japan’s doors are only opening slowly to immigrants, if at all, and in the meantime, companies have to figure out how to get more from workers who are already unhappy with the amount of overtime they have to put in.

“Long hours, overtime without pay — these habits in the corporate world are damaging workers’ emotional and physical health,” which in turn hurts productivity, said Machiko Osawa, professor of sociology at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo. “Something needs to change in the way people work.”

While companies have reason to worry, optimists say a declining population may give long-suffering workers the upper hand.

One aspect of this power shift is the growing awareness of the need for human resource managers to balance employees’ work with other aspects of their life.

According to a November 2005 survey of 224 companies by Keio University’s Career Resource Laboratory, roughly 60 percent of respondents said a work-life balance was important. Of these, 69.5 percent said a work-life balance was necessary to boost worker morale, while 56.5 percent said it was necessary to boost employment opportunities for women.

Human resource managers from some 35 major companies, including IBM Japan, Ltd., Nichirei Corp., Asahi Kasei Corp., Dentsu Inc. and Shiseido Co., set up the study group Work Life Balance Juku (cram school) in fiscal 2004, and have been discussing how to improve working conditions and encourage talented women to stay on with their companies.

“With the work pool shrinking, it is imperative that we make full use of motivated women and provide a workplace where they feel comfortable staying,” said one human resource manager who participated in the group and asked not to be identified.

While most of the meetings center around how to effect policies like maternity leave or work-sharing, participants also talk about inefficiencies that have forced workers to put in long hours, he said.

“We did away with meetings on the weekends, and instead opted for e-mail (at our company),” he said. “It’s made workers happier, and we don’t have to keep minutes of the meetings anymore.”

“In Japan , a great deal of emphasis is placed on how many hours employees put in,” Osawa said. “It’s time to judge workers by their performance, their results.”

A better sense of balance between work and other aspects of life may not lead to a higher birthrate, but Osawa said improved working conditions would remove one of the obstacles to having children.

“People are not having kids because there’s a huge sense of uncertainty,” Osawa said, arguing that workers feel they have been treated unfairly. Companies are raking in record profits, and yet people feel impoverished in terms of their quality of life, with few vacations and little time for family, she said.

“Having kids is an act of hope,” she said. “It’s hard to feel hope when you have a vague sense that you’re being cheated.”