At age 4, Mari takes swimming, gymnastics, drawing and English-conversation classes. And that’s after kindergarten.

To add to her busy schedule, in November she starts at a cram school to prepare for entrance exams to a private elementary school.

The monthly bill for all this will come to nearly 110,000 yen, but her 40-year-old mother, Makiko, sees it as money well spent.

“I want my daughter to find something in herself that she can be confident with. Fortunately, there are a number of options for after-school lessons now,” said Makiko, who did not want her family name used.

“Parents can spend as much money as possible on their kids, if they want.”

There are also few places for her only child to play outside in the neighborhood, she said.

She said that having two or more children would increase the financial burden on her family, whose annual income is around 10 million yen, including rent from real estate she owns.

“I’m not obsessed with having more children,” Makiko said, as it would force her to sacrifice more of her own time. Her salaryman husband rarely helps with household chores, she said.

“I’m beginning to feel that one child will be enough.”

Forking out large sums of money on preschool education is just the beginning of a long period of expense that continues, in many cases, until university graduation. Almost half of today’s young Japanese attend or will attend college, according to experts.

They say that over the course of a child’s education, parents can easily spend five-times the minimum costs required.

A 1999 survey on the declining birthrate conducted by the Cabinet Office reveals people’s fear of the high costs of education.

A little more than 37 percent of 3,530 respondents age 18 or older felt bringing up children is “more or less” painful. And 44.4 percent of that group said costly education presents the biggest barrier.

“Generally speaking, education from kindergarten through college costs at least 10 million yen per child,” said Teiji Tanabe, manager at the sales education division of Sony Life Insurance Co.

The figure assumes a public school track and living at home through college, he said. It also includes cram schools and after-school lessons.

If a child attends private schools, however, the cost balloons to at least 20 million yen. Throw in a private medical school, which alone would cost more than 30 million yen, and overall education costs climb above 45 million yen.

In a country where parents dig deep for education and there is little social pressure on teenagers to start living on their own, people are increasingly reluctant to have large families, choosing instead to pamper the few.

A June 2001 survey by National Life Finance Corporation Research Institute highlights how education costs have increasingly become a burden on households amid the prolonged economic slump.

The public institute said the average education costs of putting a child through high school and college has totaled around 9.415 million yen per child. The average household income in 2000 was 7.222 million yen, down from the previous year and marking a decline for the third consecutive year.

The financial burden of education is definitely one reason behind the drop in the birthrate, said Mika Ikemoto, a senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute Ltd.

“Economically speaking, it apparently does not pay to have children, let alone to spend a lot on the education of any kid who does come along,” Ikemoto said.

Thanks to a better public pension system, people are finding it less necessary when they become old to rely on kids, she continued, and many people simply prefer to spend money on themselves. “It is only natural to see the birthrate declining.”

But birthrate statistics portend serious changes to Japan’s demographics, changes that could threaten the pension system.

The rate, already below the average of industrial countries, marked its second post-war peak in the early 1970s and has steadily edged down, hitting a record low of 1.33 last year. This is far below the 2.08 necessary to stabilize the country’s population.

Experts say the consistent decline is a result of various underlying problems in Japan’s social structure, which only adds to the difficulties of raising children.

Naohiro Yashiro, president at Japan Center for Economic Research, a private institute, said a serious problem of the sliding birthrate is the high “opportunity costs” of having a baby.

Someone who quits a company to care for a baby, then seeks a return to a career, for example, faces the prospect of a lower salary level.

“From the viewpoint of working women, a major reason to hesitate over having a child is not the real (education) costs but the potential losses they suffer from losing their place on the corporate ladder,” he said.

Under seniority-based pay, a woman who works full time until she retires would ultimately make 72 million yen more than someone of the same seniority who quits at age 27 to raise a child and returns to work after six years, thus restarting at a lower salary, Yashiro said.

If the woman resumes work as a part-timer, the gap reaches 186 million yen, he said.

The government needs to minimize the gap by raising liquidity in the labor market and revising the seniority system so women can easily return to a position at the same salary level after quitting to have a child, Yashiro said.

“This is not only a problem adding to the low birthrate, but a systemic flaw of the country as a whole,” he said.

And if a mother returns to a full-time job after a brief maternity leave, she would have to shell out to have someone care for the child while she was at work.

A 36-year-old female public servant in central Tokyo noted the high child-care costs she faces to continue her career. Weekday baby sitting and housekeeping fees can run to 100,000 yen a month.

Added expenses include a public nursery for her son and a public elementary school and four types of after-school lessons for her daughter.

The financial burden is high but necessary for her to keep working, she said.

The Japan Research Institute’s Ikemoto stressed the importance of public financial support for education to help alleviate the burden.

According to OECD statistics, the ratio of public spending on elementary through higher education against the gross domestic product is slightly more than 3 percent, the second-lowest figure among the OECD nations.

Because parents can expect little help from public funds to cover education costs, the country also needs to provide quality schooling at a lower price, Ikemoto added.

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