On Jan. 12, people who will turn 20 this year attended ceremonies marking Coming-of-Age Day at auditoriums run by local governments. Some wore outrageous getups as final statements of youthful folly before “entering society” and some exercised their entitlement by getting drunk and acting out, but most bore their new status somberly and sat quietly through the boring, edifying speeches. Apparently, many even paid attention to the bureaucrats on hand whose purpose was to explain their coming responsibilities.

When you turn 20 in Japan you must start making monthly payments to the kokumin nenkin kikin seido, regardless of whether you are in school or working. In the unlikely event that you are already a full-time regular employee, you may be enrolled in the kōsei nenkin system, which means your contributions are pegged to your salary. Otherwise, you pay the set amount for a basic pension.

Many young people don’t get with the program right away, so officials of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare have their work cut out for them. Last spring, they set aside ¥16 million for a promotional campaign that explains to new adults their mandatory participation in the pension system. After taking bids, the ministry selected an advertising company that proposed a series of comic strips explicating the system in a way younger citizens would appreciate. The series went online last May, and until the beginning of January registered about 1,000 hits a day. But according to the Asahi Shimbun, on Jan. 14 some 89,000 people accessed the site, probably after having learned about pensions at Coming-of-Age ceremonies. Many reacted negatively.

In the cartoon, a female civil servant named Kaneko Toshi (a different reading of the kanji characters used for “nenkin“) visits a three-generation household and explains how the pension system works — not just the mechanics, but the economic philosophy behind fuka hōshiki, wherein the present workforce contributes the money that will be received by present retired people. The pension system is a cycle: Those who presumably paid their fair share earlier are now “supported” by younger generations. In order for that to happen, there must be a steady supply of new adults to pay into the system.

In the last of the 11 episodes, Toshi tells the family’s older, unmarried daughter, who works for the local government, and the younger daughter, a university student, how the falling birthrate has undermined this system. The older sister says to her sibling that she should get married and have “lots of children.” In the end, Toshi, who is also unmarried, takes the older sister along with her to a matchmaking party, presumably to meet a potential husband.

Asahi combed through thousands of tweets complaining about the series. Many women were offended at the implication that they had to get married and have children in order to “bridge the generation gap,” which has weakened the pension system. One tweet, shared more than 2,000 times, stated that the cartoon clarified “the social role of women” demanded by the government, since the sisters’ older brother is engaged to be married and securely employed. He isn’t a problem.

The ministry said it will revise the cartoon by March, believing the problem to be one of presentation. In an article for the online magazine Zakzak, Kaetsu University professor Yoichi Takahashi analyzed the situation, explaining that the present pension system has remained unchanged since it started, in 1959, and that at the time people who received pensions had not previously contributed to it, since it didn’t exist when they were working. All adults from then on have paid for the pensions of retirees with the assurance that they will be supported by younger people when they themselves retire. This method may be considered “controversial” by some, he says, but it is the norm for social security systems worldwide. Changing to a different system, say a “savings plan,” is politically difficult and unrealistic.

Takahashi thinks that had the explanation been presented in a conventional “essay” form, it would not have caused a fuss, but it also wouldn’t have made an impression, and he believes that while the authors didn’t effectively explain the current “generation gap” between contributors and retirees, the point was made that a gap exists and the reason for it is the declining birthrate. It’s a “sensitive issue,” he says, but an unavoidable one.

He overlooks the fact that it’s already too late to close the gap — that the working population will continue to decline as the number of retirees increases. Even if young adults started having children in record numbers tomorrow, it won’t affect the pension fund for at least a generation. The system was designed for an economy that would always be growing at a certain rate, and that hasn’t been the case for more than 20 years.

Takahashi is a popular media pundit since he once worked for the Finance Ministry. He is part of the political establishment, which sees no alternative to the current pension system. The Democratic Party of Japan recognized its unsustainable nature and vowed to overhaul the system when it was the ruling party, and when the Liberal Democratic Party regained power in 2012 it promised the DPJ it would work together to revise it, but it hasn’t and doesn’t seem to have any intention of doing so.

This mind-set was exemplified by Finance Minister Taro Aso when he told a crowd in December that social security is in trouble because women “are not giving birth.” Roundly criticized for the remark, he made it not to disparage women but rather to defend retirees, who he said were “taking the blame” for overburdening the pension system. The comment may have been taken out of context, but it nevertheless reveals how the only idea the administration has for fixing the system is to boost the birth rate, and every time it says that it just makes women angry. By now you’d think they would have gotten the message.

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