Though everybody saw it coming, the announcement last week that China’s economy supplanted Japan’s as the second largest in the world shocked many people. It matters little that China’s sheer size makes its dominance inevitable. What matters is that Japan’s 42-year run as the world’s No. 2 is over, and if there’s anything Japan takes seriously it’s its position in the eyes of the world.

And the world is taking notice. Japan has become the prime example of what happens when a mature economy continues to stagnate. Scholar Alexandra Harney analyzed recent Japanese news stories in the online magazine Slate as a means of showing Americans what they may be in for.

She uses the cases of families collecting dead members’ pensions and the rise of “parasite singles” to point out how a rich, vital economy can sink so far it has no realistic chance of climbing back up. Low birthrate is a problem, but mainly as a consequence of Japan’s “failure to create jobs.” The Japanese media has not ignored this connection, but in general they still blame population contraction on social changes rather than economic ones, as if the two were somehow distinct. Men have become less aggressive, women too choosy; so they don’t marry and procreate.

Many Japanese still believe that the country’s economic and social problems can be solved by regaining so-called traditional values related to family and community. Last week, on NHK’s “Sunday Debate,” conservative critic Susumu Nishibe argued that Japan’s birthrate can be increased by addressing “problems that exist between men and women.” Though he wasn’t necessarily saying that men and women had to regain the traditional roles imposed on them by society, his argument was nevertheless based more on sentiment than anything else.

The other participants in the debate were more down to earth. Nonfiction writer Shinobu Yoshioka believes that families only have meaning for “weddings, funerals and public welfare.” Writer Karin Amemiya, whose main subject is poverty, commented that members of her generation (she’s 35) “can’t get married, and even those who do aren’t inclined to have children.” She’s all for families providing the social safety net that the government expects them to provide, but in today’s economic environment they can’t.

According to Tsunehiro Uno, a 31-year- old Web-based critic, the postwar model of a society based on families and communities hasn’t been viable for years, because the economic system it was structured around was dismantled starting in the 1980s. Social safety nets were originally constructed with families in mind, but the regular, full-time employment that supported such families gradually receded as companies “rationalized” their operations in order to address more intense global competition.

“Young people now who do get married can’t afford to have kids,” Uno said, “even if both the husband and the wife work.” He added that the Japanese government knew that something like this might happen as long ago as 1980 but it did nothing to prepare for such an eventuality, trusting that the economy would continue to grow if left to its own devices.

Instead it slowed, and society buckled. The panel discussed the recent case of the single mother in Osaka who abandoned her two very young children to starve to death while she worked in the sex industry. Though everyone admitted it was a special case, there was disagreement on how much it reflected social changes.

Yoshioka felt it was too extreme to use as a yardstick, but Uno, while implying that the problem of child abuse is as old as civilization, believes it points out several truths that the media overlooked in its blanket abhorrence of the woman. One more obvious reality is that the authorities have no idea how to safeguard children in such situations, and another is that they have yet to acknowledge single motherhood as part of Japan’s social fabric.

Writer Takashi Tsujii seconded this opinion by saying that Japanese politicians ignore the widening income gap. Economic bumps are felt strongest by those at the bottom, in particular children and single mothers, two groups for whom politicians have no use. Japanese women, he pointed out, still earn substantially less than Japanese men do for the same work, a fact about which the U.N. has been complaining for years, and single mothers earn even less. Amemiya emphasized that Japan has the largest portion of working single mothers of any industrialized country, and they make one-third of what the average Japanese household earns.

Aside from Nishibe, the participants made clear that the unmarried generation and the low birthrate are both consequences of economic policies that were in force long before either phenomenon emerged. Unlike in Europe, Japanese companies are not expected to contribute to social welfare through job security, and have instead appropriated the American system of increasing bottom lines by cutting personnel and salaries. As of the end of March, the private sector held more than ¥202 trillion in earned capital reserves (ryuho), the largest amount since 1980.

Perhaps the birthrate wouldn’t be so low if marriage didn’t get in the way, but most people still believe they have to be hitched before they produce offspring, and marriage basically remains an economic institution.

In a recent interview in the Asahi Shimbun, psychologist Chikako Ogura said that Japanese men’s “4K” criteria for potential brides — kawaii (cute), kashikoi (intelligent), katei-teki (family-minded), karui (small and light) — is now augmented by a fifth “K”: keizai-ryoku, or “financially strong,” traditionally a criterion that women demanded in potential husbands. When employment doesn’t promise a living wage, you look for financial security wherever you can.

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