1949. The war was over. Slowly, a numbed populace rose from the dead. That year, 2.7 million babies were born — a record high, never surpassed.
Those times seem very distant from us now. The number of births in 2013 was 1.037 million — a record low.
The infants of 1949 turn 65 this year. They are the symbolic link between the postwar baby boom and the increasingly childless present. As they retire en masse, with an average of 21 years of life ahead of them (based on a life expectancy of 86.5 years), who will support their pensions? Decades in the offing, the problem has yet to be solved, or even adequately addressed. “Aging society” has become a familiar, almost knee-jerk description of Japan, but Shukan Post magazine says, “This is Year One of the aging society” — meaning, You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Aera magazine, meanwhile, declares Japan a “child-rearing small country” — in contrast to the immediate postwar period, when it would have ranked as a child-rearing superpower. But its meaning is not pejorative. On the contrary, it proclaims a number of child-rearing “revolutions” that seem to bode well for the future.
There’s the revolution in day care, for example, in which parents are demanding, petitioning for, demonstrating for, and to some extent winning, official attention to the woeful shortage of day care facilities for children of working couples. A residential revolution features shared housing for single mothers. A workplace revolution brings paternity leave — very slowly — to the foreground. A networking revolution draws parents together for mutual assistance — they babysit each other’s kids, pick each other’s kids up at day care, and so on. One network boasts 7,000 members.
No doubt it would have astonished the mothers of 1949 to glimpse all this in their country’s 21st-century future. “Mothers,” we say, and rightly. Fathers were scarcely involved in child-rearing at all, which brings us to another revolution — the household revolution — in which fathers do, increasingly, consider themselves fathers in more than the biological and economic senses of the word.
Japan circa 1949, under foreign occupation, shattered by years of aerial bombing, must have been crawling with kids, bursting with youth. “In some ways we were a blessed generation,” a member of it recalls for Shukan Post. Their needs defined public policy. Schools were needed and schools sprang up. Housing was needed and vast suburban “new towns” — block after towering block of faceless, featureless residential functionality — were built to provide it. (Lately the new towns are becoming ghost towns.) As the kids grew up they would need jobs; the government poured money into the economy.
Revolutions were happening then too — most visibly the economic one that turned a broken nation into “Japan Inc.,” but also a series of moral ones. The prewar generation was often shocked by the “selfishness” (or “individualism,” if they took a kinder view of it) of the postwar baby-boomers. (From our modern perspective their “individualism” hardly seems like the real thing; we tend to be more struck by their groupism, which is an indication of how far we’ve traveled along that road; but to many of those raised on wartime discipline, their children’s feverish pursuit of cars, TVs, refrigerators and so on could only have smacked of fearful degeneracy.)
A romantic revolution favored marriage for love over arranged marriage; a musical revolution gave us rock ‘n’ roll; a rising political consciousness drove baby-boom youth into the streets to demonstrate against war, imperialism, capitalism and other evils.
That so many from those days remain alive to share their memories with us is the triumph of yet another revolution — the medical one that has made Japan the longest-living nation in the world. It is a demographic revolution too, whose flip side has been a mass indifference to, or rejection of, child-bearing. Thus the “aging society.”
One revolution begets another, or many others, and we return now to Aera’s child-rearing revolutions. At first blush it seems odd that a plunging birth rate would spawn such revolutions when a baby boom failed to. Other factors are involved: social, economic, technological. Women are no longer merely mothers. Their personal fulfillment and the limping state of the economy demand a more active role for them in society at large. That’s impossible under the traditional domestic arrangement, which the baby boomers somehow never challenged — husband to the office, wife at home.
Thinking changes slowly; then suddenly technology comes along to push things forward. AsMama, the pioneering parents’ network whose 7,000 members nationwide make parenting more of a communal undertaking than it was even in more traditional times when the entire community was involved, was founded in 2009 by Keiko Koda, whose basic insight seems the common seed of all Aera’s revolutions: “You shouldn’t have to give up everything else in life in order to raise children.”
Not long ago it seemed you did have to, if you were a woman. Day care openings fall dreadfully short of need — the nationwide waiting list as of 2012 was 24,825 names long, according to the health ministry. Tokyo’s Suginami Ward was revolutionary headquarters. Here the shortage was most acute; here began the demonstrations and petition campaigns that helped move the government to promise day care accommodation for an additional 400,000 children by 2017.
Paternity leave — what would a father of 1949 have thought of that? Fathers, or perhaps rather their employers, think little enough of it today, if the percentage of fathers taking it — 2.6 in 2011 — is the measure. The government’s goal is 10 percent by 2017. At one company, Nihon Life Insurance, the rate is 100 percent. Is this the future writ small? Ninety percent of Nihon Life employees are women, and management wants male staffers to understand what work-life balance means when the “life” part of the equation includes children. So paternity leave, if only a week’s worth, is mandatory for fathers employed by Nihon Life.
What if there is no father? As divorce increases, so does single motherhood. We’re back in Suginami Ward, where a “share house” for single mothers and their children, one of a slowly growing number, eases the burdens peculiar to their status. Four mothers, each with one child, live together under one roof. The benefit most deeply felt is release from a social isolation that can be crushing. “Living with other people in the same situation,” says a 47-year-old mother of a 9-year-old daughter, “is an enormous comfort.”
Aera’s small revolutions may add up to a big one, a step simultaneously backward and forward — back to the days when child-raising was more or less a matter of course, forward to whole new ways of doing it.