See related stories:
French values and child-care policies put family before work
Environment, not career major hurdle to big families

A multifaceted approach is needed to stem the continuing fall in Japan’s birthrate, according to participants in a recent series of symposiums on the issue.

Along with increased public financial and nonfinancial support for parents raising children, companies need to allow diverse and flexible ways of working so that their employees can spend more time with their families, they said.

Businesspeople, government officials and experts on the issues of the declining birthrate and aging population took part in the symposiums organized by Keizai Koho Center on Oct. 18 and 31 at Keidanren Kaikan.

Japanese industries and companies should recognize the declining birthrate as a threat to the nation’s growth and international competitiveness, said Kenzaburo Mogi, vice chairman of Kikkoman Corp. and co-chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) committee on population issues.

“Costs incurred (by efforts to tackle the problem) should be considered an investment for the future,” Mogi told the first symposium Oct. 18.

And the coming five years will be crucial to Japan’s efforts to halt the fall in the birthrate because the children of postwar baby boomers have just entered the age group when they are likely to have and raise their own children, Mogi said.

The data presented by the speakers painted a bleak demographic picture of a nation whose population in 2005 marked the first decline in over a century.

Japan’s birthrate has steadily declined and hit a record low of 1.25 in 2005 — well below the 2.08 that is needed to maintain the population. The 1.06 million babies born in the year were outnumbered by the 1.08 million deaths.

News photo News photo
Keizo Takemi
Norio Okazawa

Men and women are marrying late and do not immediately have children when they marry. In 2005, the average age at which men married for the first time was 29.8 — compared with 28.5 in 1995 and 27.3 in 1964 — while the figure for women was 28 — compared with 26.3 in 1995 and 24.4 in 1964.

In 2005, 47.7 percent of men and 32.6 percent of women in their early 30s were not married — compared with 37.3 percent and 19.7 percent, respectively, a decade earlier.

Multiple factors are believed to have contributed to this trend, including changes in young people’s lifestyles as well as the loss of traditional family structure and community functions that helped parents raise children.

Efforts taken so far to stem the trend have not had the desired effects, Keizo Takemi, senior vice minister for health, labor and welfare, told the audience.

It has long been advocated that fathers should play a greater role in child rearing and other family matters so that the burden should not fall too heavily on mothers. The reality, however, is that one in four Japanese men in their early 30s — when their children are likely to be small — work more than 60 hours a week on average, leaving them little time to spend with the kids, Takemi said. In fact, the problem has become worse in recent years after companies cut back on their workforces, he pointed out.

Government programs to increase day-care services for preschool children of working mothers have not caught up with the rising demand, leaving large numbers on waiting lists, he noted.

Takemi also said that the tough economic conditions facing Japan’s younger generations are partly to blame for young people marrying late because they don’t feel secure enough to have a family. Despite the ongoing recovery, the jobless rate among youths under 25 remains high, and many younger workers are employed under such unstable conditions as part-time contracts, he pointed out.

The declining birthrate is the outcome of these multiple factors, and “there is no single, miracle cure,” Takemi said.

Mogi said that efforts to stem the falling birthrate should be made on three fronts. The first is financial incentives, such as child-care allowances, and preferential tax and pension treatments for households with children. The second is nonfinancial support measures, which will include more day-care services, an improved child-care leave system, and corporate efforts to cut the working hours of employees, he said.

And the third front concerns public views on having children — which today tend to focus on the difficulties confronting mothers, Mogi said. Public efforts need to be made to emphasize the more positive aspects and significance of having and raising children, he said.

Haruna Okada, corporate senior vice president at Benesse Corp., said public support for mothers of small children has improved a lot since she was raising her kids 20 years ago.

But the vague anxieties of women who have not married toward having children need to be addressed because they do wonder if they can safely raise their children under the current social conditions where, for example, the number of maternity clinics and pediatricians is declining nationwide, she said.

Mogi said that employers, for their part, need to provide diverse ways of working for their employees and create an environment in which they can strike a better balance between jobs and family time. Greater flexibility is needed in terms of working hours while child-care leave should be made more easily available and the choice of working at home should be offered, he noted.

Corporate leaders should make such policies a management priority, and companies should engage in healthy competition to attract talented human resources through these efforts, Mogi said.

Saitama Gov. Kiyoshi Ueda said that companies play an important role in defining and changing the lifestyles of workers. Giving workers more time to spend with their families will increase the value of companies, and a system to evaluate and publicize such efforts should be established, he said.

According to Ueda, roughly 1 million of the 3 million working population in his prefecture commute to Tokyo for their jobs. Saitama is ranked fourth among Japan’s 47 prefectures in terms of the length of time fathers spend at work and in commuting, and is ranked 40th in terms of birthrate, Ueda said.

Norio Okazawa, a professor of comparative politics at Waseda University, told the Oct. 31 session that the declining birthrate and aging population will greatly influence Japan’s political and economic systems in the 21st century.

Okazawa said that Japan’s postwar growth was based on its 65 million to 70 million workforce, which used to be replenished each year with an influx of young workers. With the number of newborns hitting a low of 1.06 million in 2005 — compared with the postwar peak of 2.69 million in 1947 — this supply could dry up in the coming decades, he said.

On the other hand, people 65 years or older, who currently number 26.4 million and account for 20 percent of the nation’s population, are estimated to hit 32.4 million and account for 32 percent of the population in 2050, he said. Given the current trend of people marrying late or not marrying at all, a large portion of this elderly population will be single, he added.

To deal with labor shortages, Japan has a set of choices to make — raise the birthrate, either turn to immigrant labor or shift production bases overseas, make greater use of its potential female labor force, raise the retirement age and have more elderly people continue to work, or downsize its economy, Okazawa noted.