Kodomo teate (子供手当て, child allowance) is a benign, beneficent social policy rooted in horror, having first seen the light of day in certain European countries that had been dangerously depopulated by World War I.

World War II and its carnage helped spread the idea, as did steadily rising postwar prosperity and the conviction it brought that governments must assume more or less responsibility for the happiness and comfort of their citizen masses.

Japan was having none of it until twin crises it should have seen coming were well upon it. These were shōshika (少子化, declining birth rates) and kōreika (高齢化, an aging society). Belatedly introduced a decade or so ago, the national 子供手当て coughed up by an unwilling government proved much too little, way too late. 少子化 and 高齢化 proceeded apace, and still do.

The year 2009 was a watershed. The yatō (野党, opposition) Minshutō (民主党, Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ) won an historic electoral victory over the yotō (与党, governing) Jimintō (自民党, Liberal Democratic Party, LDP), proving Japan need not be an eternal one-party state after all. 子供手当て reform was a kanban seisaku (看板政策, key policy) in the DPJ マニフェスト (manifesto). The rinen (理念, principle) was: Subete no kodomo no sodachi wo shakai zentai de ōen suru (すべてのこどもの育ちを社会全体で応援する, society as a whole is to help raise all children).

Alas, the 民主党 never found its footing as a government. Intraparty squabbles, funding scandals, and the sheer difficulty of changing on a dime from 野党 mode to 与党 mode dogged it even before the Great East Japan Earthquake generated a mizou (未曾有, unprecedented) and still unfolding genpatsu kiki (原発危機, nuclear crisis).

The kaikaku (改革, reform) the DPJ narimonoiri de kakageta (鳴り物入りで掲げた, trumpeted with great fanfare) in its 2009 election マニフェスト was an ichiritsu (一律, uniform) child allowance, shotoku wo towazu (所得を問わず, regardless of income). No matter how well-off the family was, it would receive chugakusei made no kodomo hitori ni tsuki, tsuki ni-man roku-sen yen (中学生までの子供一人につき、月二万六千円, ¥26,000 a month for each child through junior high school). Subsequent negotiations whittled the sum down to ¥13,000, but the principle of uniformity — a boldly innovative one — held. Ikuji (育児, child-rearing) was to be a social as well as a family obligation.

It holds no longer. On Aug. 4 Minshu, Jimin, Komei no san-to (民主、自民、公明の三党, the three major parties, the DPJ, LDP and New Komeito) agreed to reconsider the child allowance. The 民主党 was in a bind. Without cooperation from the opposition it could not hitsuyō na kyogaku no fukkō zaigan wo nenshutsu suru (必要な巨額の復興財源を捻出する, raise the vast sums required for reconstruction.)

Cooperation was not to be had for nothing. The opposition demanded, among other things, that the new 一律 principle be scrapped. The 民主党 agreed to replace it with a shotoku seigen (所得制限, income cap). Households earning above ¥9.6 million a year will no longer, as of next April, be eligible for 子供手当て.

Is this a contemptible uragiri (裏切り, sellout), or an unavoidable dakyō (妥協, compromise)?

Opinions varied. Among the toughest editorial stances was the one taken by this newspaper, which decried “a shameful decision for both the ruling and opposition parties.” It accused the DPJ of betraying “one of (the) main election promises that catapulted it into power.” It lamented the gutting of a policy “designed to stop the graying of the population.”

Both the Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun were more sympathetic toward the beleaguered, enfeebled government. The Asahi acknowledged that there will probably be criticism that the DPJ is failing to abide by its commitment. However, “kono tenkan wa yamu wo enai” (「この転換はやむを得ない」, “this about-face was inevitable”).

Haishi suru no wa tōzen de aru” (「廃止するのは当然である」, “scrapping [the DPJ policy] is only natural”) was the Yomiuri’s verdict. “Saisho kara zaigen no urazuke wo kaita muri na seisaku de ari” (「最初から財源の裏付けを欠いた無理な政策であり」, “This policy, with no financial resources behind it, was impossible from the start.”

“No financial resources” sounds final and unquestionable — but Japan’s dwindling birthrate and increasing longevity are far outpacing analogous developments in other advanced countries. Skimp on social policies to deal with that and, among other consequences, it will become impossible to support the elderly. As the Asahi concedes, “Hoka no ōku no shuyōkoku ni kurabe, kosodate wo shien suru shishutsu ga sukunasugiru” (「ほかの多くの主要国に比べ、子育てを支援する支出が少なすぎる」, “compared to many other advanced nations, Japan spends too little on child support”).

Fiscal prudence is important, but not the last word on this subject.

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