“I believe the children are our future.”
No, the Muzak is not pumping out Whitney Houston. The words are from a friend at a McDonald’s. He and I have been watching a small Japanese boy shove French fries up his nose.
The boy sort of resembles a saber-toothed tiger. He cups his hands like claws and roars.
Cute. And made even cuter by our lack of responsibility. He’s his mother’s problem, not ours.
Where is she? Where are all the parents in all Japan?
Don’t they know they’re aren’t enough kids here? Can’t they see the little boy’s choice of beasts is prophetic? The way the birthrate has been going, children in Japan are heading the way of the saber-toothed tiger — into extinction.
The boy growls at his even smaller sister, latched safely into a stroller. She screams and by some miracle the windows fail to shatter. Meanwhile, her face is streaked with ketchup, for she has been eating through her skin, not her mouth.
My friend says: “I don’t get it. Why don’t parents want more kids?”
And then the little girl spits up.
Now, there are various angles on this. There is the “fertility angle,” for those parents who want children but haven’t yet succeeded. There is the “Careers come first” angle. There is the “We cannot afford one” angle. There is the “Who cares? We just wanna be free!” angle. And there is the “We are nerds and would rather play video games” angle.
“But kids are not ‘angles’!” cries my friend. “They’re angels!”
Now the little girl angel is combing her hair with her hamburger. At the same time, her angelic brother has removed one “saber” from his nose and is examining its flavor. He seems to approve and offers his sister a bite. She accepts.
Angels? Monsters? Nowadays Japanese look upon such kids and see something entirely different: taxpayers.
It used to be that Japan found its heroes in samurai. Or more recently, in the workaholic warriors of Japanese economics. Yet modern Japanese heroes are the guys and gals who endeavor to raise a passel of kids. The entire nation bows in gratitude.
Or it should. For while not quite in “Children of Men” mode, the lack of future taxpayers presents a chilling scenario for a nation with lots of debt on one hand and lots of pensioners on the other. The nation needs more hands.
“There must be some way to encourage Japanese to have more children!” says my kid-loving friend.
So we share some “modest proposals.”
“Stop all tax breaks and government support for families. Instead, go the other way and tax the hell out of childless couples. Make it economically unfeasible not to have children!”
“Or,” I say, noting that the brother is now licking ketchup off his sister’s face, “make a law saying that couples without kids have to raise the children of those who do — thus giving producers freedom and nonproducers the incentive to become producers.”
“Or,” he says, “import kids and place them in brand-goods stores, so that every fashion-conscious woman will want one! Louis Vuitton kids, Chanel kids, Cartier kids — we could tattoo little emblems on their earlobes. Who knows? Maybe it will boom, like purikura.”
“Or we could have a few more kids ourselves!”
A suggestion that knocks us back to reality.
“My child-rearing days are over,” I say. “I just want to kick back and live off the fat of the land. It’s just that the land doesn’t look so very fat.”
The mother of saber-toothed boy and hamburger girl returns. She has her hair a shade of orange that doesn’t exist in nature and a pierced lower lip. And oh, speaking of the fat of the land, she could use a few fewer French fries.
On a tray she carries dessert — two cups of soft ice cream that her children will probably bathe in as much as eat. What a happy meal this will be.
“Maybe it’s this younger generation,” says my friend, certain his English will find no ears other than mine.
“With all the hikikomori shut-ins and social dropouts and Internet addicts and otaku types, maybe having kids isn’t the thing anymore,” I wonder. “From Japan’s view that’s trouble. But maybe that’s not the only view to have.”
“Maybe,” he says. “We should think of the kids. They need good parents, not nerds.”
Words he soon regrets. For our McDonald’s mother proves well up to her task. She cleans up her dynamic duo and spoon-feeds them ice cream with a joy that is as electric as her hair color. If we didn’t see it there, we’d see it in the eyes of the little ones — eyes bright enough to light everyone’s future.
We watch them and get lost in their exuberance. With children, it’s easy to believe everything’s will be all right.
But — will it?
“Ah,” sighs my friend, “I wish I could be a kid again.”
Right, I tell him. So does Japan.
That’s all folks!
“When East Marries West” began in 1998 and ends today. This is the final edition.
Seventeen years is a long run and I am grateful. In 1998 my two sons were schoolboys; now the only kid in the house is me. The boys are grown men and my wife, long-suffering then, is even longer-suffering now. Time to call in the dogs.
Much thanks to my family — sons Mike and Jay and wife Keiko — for indulging me in my silliness and equal thanks to The Japan Times for printing it. Biggest thanks of all go to the readers. I hope I made some of you smile.
Now’s my chance to be Porky Piggish: That’s all folks. Take care and be happy.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5