My next-door neighbor passed away in the summer of last year. I attended his funeral. He was a good, kind man and I will miss him.

At the ceremony, I found myself considering the make-up of the congregation, and what I saw clearly illustrates the coming demographic collapse of Japan.

There were a total of 49 people attending the funeral: two children and 47 adults. While I may not be completely accurate in my estimation, there were only a total of six women who looked as if they were pre-menopausal. To keep that room’s population constant, each of those women would need to have eight children.

Now let’s look at the numbers of the students in my adult English class that met later that night.

I, the teacher, am married with a child, and my wife has a married, childless sister, so in this family of two couples, there is only one child. Student A is single, has an unmarried brother and that family has no kids. Student B is single and her divorced sister has two children. Student C is single, as is one of her sisters, whereas her other sister and brother are both married; they have two children between them. Student D is married with a child and a grandchild, but his sister is unmarried.

With just two exceptions, these patterns are repeated in every English class I teach, in every household on my block, in every family I know of. A worker at one of the largest employers in my town — with over 100 employees, mainly men between 20 and 60 — told me that only around 25 percent of them had gambled on family life.

Breaking Japan’s population down into household family units, many would qualify under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s criteria as critically endangered species. Family is a social institution, and if Japan wishes to escape the fate of the dodo, it has to look at why so many Japanese have not and will not take a chance on family life.

While the great majority of my Canadian high school classmates gambled on family life with both success and failure, less than half of my Japanese wife’s classmates did the same. I suggest that in contrast to many other developed countries, Japan has had no positive model of what family life should be for two to three generations, since the rush to rebuild postwar Japan was first used to justify an unjustifiable culture where work trumps family.

Without a societal model that makes family life appear important and attractive, it’s no wonder Japanese people have stopped choosing it. And no number of new day care spaces is likely to change that.

The dishonor roll

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so indulge me as I resort to a bit of hyperbole.

In a couple of generations, when China and North Korea agree to change the diapers on the last of Japan’s elderly in exchange for the land titles to the Japanese archipelago, here are the three Japanese institutions that will have received in pectore (secret “in the heart”) national honors from Beijing and Pyongyang for making this transfer of ownership possible — and, at this late stage, probably irreversible.

The Order of Kim Il Sung goes to Japan’s labor ministry for its stubborn refusal to stop unpaid “service overtime” or enforce labor codes covering permitted hours of work. A special mention also goes to the thousands of private companies whose employees did not get the “statutory holidays” that civil servants got. The ministry also wins kudos for setting the overtime pay rate so low that employers find it cheaper to pay OT than become more efficient or hire additional workers.

The Japan Federation of Employers Associations (Nikkeiren) receives China’s Order of Republic award for its shortsightedness in becoming addicted to unpaid and low-cost overtime, and for not fighting to unravel the bureaucratic red tape its members are wrapped in. Nikkeiren shares the honor with Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), many of whose members decided long ago that wringing a few more hours of work out of employees beats innovating, improving efficiency or questioning outdated work practices.

The Order of Kim Jong Il goes to the education ministry for its ripping of Japanese youth away from their families for the benefit of time-hogging school clubs. It also receives the Order of the National Flag, First Class for creating so much busywork for schoolteachers that they too have little or no family life.

Building an ideal of family

“Family life” involves doing things together — eating together, taking inexpensive vacations together, going camping — sharing life as a family, and watching and learning what it takes to create and sustain life together and make it work. To be attractive as a institution, the members of a family must have a wealth of positive memories of their time together to draw upon.

Many young Japanese people, watching their fathers come home late night after night — too tired to interact much, if at all, with them — will have few of these memories. If youth have time to notice, they will note the scant value Japanese society places on a homemaker’s time — time that is squandered preparing meals first for the elementary student, then, later, for the junior high school student, and finally something for Papa when he finally drags himself through the door.

I despair for Japan more than I worry about the endangered crested ibis. Why? The way out of this death spiral would involve senior figures and institutions here doing something I doubt they are capable of: They must admit they were 100 percent wrong about their policies and priorities, and that their senpai (seniors) were not only equally wrong but also shortsighted, and that this myopia has lasted generations.

Relevant to this discussion is a survey quoted last year in a Japan Times article headlined “In sexless Japan, almost half of single young men and single women are virgins.” It would only take a little more free time, a little more disposable income and a few more social places to meet for the aforementioned virgins to learn about and want to do sex, but can they learn to do family? If they can’t, then can the current crop of schoolchildren? Who or what is Japan waiting for?

The nation needs to address the question: What would make the young, the unattached and Japan’s future adults want, above all else, to make and be part of a family? Given Japan’s aging society, its public debt and economic policies, will they even be able to afford to?

“Nicholas Drapier” teaches English, shovels snow and gardens in rural Japan. Foreign Agenda is a forum for readers’ opinion on issues related to life in Japan.

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