After decades of a national conversation about the need for more babies, there is still disagreement as to what sort of measures Japan should take in order to increase its birthrate. The obstacles are financial, social and physiological, and before they can be addressed properly they must be identified as such.

For instance, one of the biggest social obstacles is the institution of marriage, which sounds counterintuitive, since everywhere marriage is considered a prerequisite for having children. But it doesn’t need to be. France has one of the highest birthrates in the developed world, and in 2006 the majority of new mothers there were not married. In Japan, the birthrate for unmarried women is almost zero, because the taboo against having children out of wedlock is effective.

But marriage isn’t recognized as an obstacle to higher birthrates in Japan, where the media tend to focus on financial barriers. That’s why a recent incident in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, became national news. There, parents are suing the local government over a new rule that says women who take maternity leave must remove any of their children from public day care facilities if those children are less than 2 years old, the idea being that since the mother is at home, she can take care of the child herself. The city says the rule was implemented in order to be fair to couples waiting to get their own children into public day care, but it has been interpreted as discouraging couples from having more than one child. The mayor of Tokorozawa made matters worse by saying that babies naturally want to be with their mothers until the age of 2, a claim commentators have called hyprocritical because infants in day care require more attention, and thus more money, than older children do. The mayor, they claim, is not interested in the child’s well-being, only his city’s finances.

Consequently, the media has coined a term, daini-shi no kabe, or “the wall of the second child.” In surveys, most working wives say they want more than one child but can’t have them, usually because of money issues. For all the government’s talk about letting women “shine” in the workplace, it seems reluctant to undermine what it sees as the sanctity of the “traditional family.” On a recent Nippon Cultural Broadcasting radio discussion, essayist Maki Fukasawa blasted the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for wanting its cake and eating it, too. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has repeatedly pointed out that women are the great untapped resource in Japan. Their participation in the workforce could boost growth, but the authorities can’t bring themselves to help these women directly if they want to have and raise children. As Asahi Shimbun pointed out last week, the money the central government is spending on the new national stadium could pay for a year’s worth of day care for a million 5-year-olds.

Kanako Amano, a “work-life balance specialist,” recently contributed an essay to the business magazine Diamond that describes the scale of the problem. Amano says the government knew of the impending collapse of the birthrate as early as the 1960s, and watched it deteriorate further even after implementing laws in the ’70s that encouraged women to stay home to raise children. Japan’s situation was not unique. It is normal for a country’s birthrate to decline as it develops, but most others have addressed the matter either directly, by subsidizing children, or indirectly, by allowing more immigration. It wasn’t until 1989, when the birthrate fell below what is necessary to replenish the population, that Japan took action, but it was already too late.

The measures subsequently passed to raise the birthrate focused on encouraging women to have children right away. Amano used to accept this approach. “I believed that creating a better work environment and making it easier to take maternity leave would lead to women having more children,” she writes, and then she got married and tried to have babies herself.

Because of her career she consciously “put off” marriage until she was 32. Then she attempted to have children, but her first two pregnancies ended in miscarriages. She brought her third child to term, but by then she was in her late 30s and exhausted by the effort. There wasn’t going to be a second child. In the meantime, she participated in a seminar on international birthrates. A French counterpart told Amano that her government provides free fertility treatment to any woman who needs it, but not after the age of 43, when statistically such treatment is useless. Girls in France are taught at a young age that it becomes increasingly difficult to have children after 30. This is not an issue of putting pressure on young women to have children early, but rather an effort to prepare them so that they can better face important life decisions.

Amano was shocked. She realized that maintaining a proper work-life balance won’t necessarily guarantee that a woman can have more children. Moreover, the government’s self-serving policy of getting more women into the workforce has created a vicious cycle: The labor shortage leads to an increase of working women that leads to later marriages and later births, which leads to lower birthrates and thus more serious labor shortages.

The numbers bear out this conclusion. The average age of marriage for a Japanese woman who has given birth to at least two children is 24. The average age of a woman getting married now is 30. Does that mean women should be full-time homemakers? Regardless of how one feels about “gender roles,” it’s too late for that, and economically unfeasible. What’s needed, according to Amano, is better education for girls and boys, to implant in their consciousness what’s in store for them biologically, so as they grow older they can make better choices, including whether or not to have children, or, for that matter, whether or not they should wait to get married before they do.

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