In the early days of a new year, when most of the public is on holiday and many people are traveling away from home, it is all too easy for important news to be overlooked or even dismissed as nothing new. That seems to have been the case with the scant attention paid to the announcement published on the first day of 1999 that the divorce rate in this country continued to soar in 1998, that the death rate increased slightly — and, notably, so did the numbers of marriages and births. If the Health and Welfare Ministry expected to make a strong impression with its 100th such annual report of demographic statistics, however, it could not have chosen a worse time.

With the popular media stressing the ministry’s estimate that a record 243,000 Japanese couples were divorced in the first 10 months of 1998, an increase of some 20,000 from 1997, the significance of some of the other figures in the report received short shrift. To be sure, that one couple split up every two minutes and 10 seconds last year and that the total number of divorces was five times higher than in the late 1930s, when the rate was especially low, makes compelling news, helped along by the announcements of divorces and separations among sports and entertainment celebrities. But most reports fail even to address the question of why divorce has become so common in Japan or the fact that the stigma once attached to failed marriages obviously is fading.

Critics and analysts have offered exhaustive commentaries on surveys showing that growing numbers of young Japanese now are opting for the single life over the responsibilities of marriage, that the ages at which both men and women marry for the first time continue to rise year by year and that many married couples are choosing to remain childless. Perhaps they should shift their focus to the more hopeful signs suggested by the Health and Welfare Ministry figures indicating that both marriages and births registered marginal increases in 1998. The number of marriages grew by some 16,000, to reach a total of 792,000. The figure for births was 1,206,000, a rise of some 14,000 over the previous year.

It is too early to tell whether such modest gains — one-tenth of a percentage point in each case — represent any real shift in social trends. The marriage ratio per 1,000 members of the population was 6.3, up from 6.2 in 1997; the ratio for births was 9.6, up from 9.5. Ministry officials are understandably reacting with caution, pointing out that even with last year’s increase the birthrate is still less than half what it was during the 1947-49 postwar baby boom and can be expected to remain low for some time to come.

The warning carries special significance in view of the fact that the nation’s death toll in 1998 continued its steady annual increase, reaching a total of 932,000, or 19,000 more than in 1997, with one death registered every 34 seconds. Part of the reason for the rise, of course, lies in the fact that Japan’s population is aging more rapidly than any other. No encouragement is offered by the three main causes of death, the same as in 1997 and in the same order: cancer, heart disease and stroke, all ailments endemic to the contemporary lifestyle, and to a society with so many elderly members.

And yet, despite the doomsayers’ predictions of looming social disaster, Japan actually registered a slight population growth last year of 274,000, although it must be noted it was the second smallest increase ever recorded. Nevertheless, despite the continuing economic gloom that pervades much of Japanese society today, a reading between the lines of the Health and Welfare Ministry’s latest demographics suggests that the outlook for the nation as it stands on the threshold of a new century is in no way as bleak as the pessimists insist it is.

Those politicians who have been most vocal in calling for urgent steps to increase the national birthrate have been noticeably silent as the unemployment rate rises and corporate restructuring continues to take a heavy toll among workers with many more productive years ahead of them. Japan must prepare itself for no more than occasional token increases in the number of births in the years ahead and stop pretending that the clock can be turned back. These times call for leaders able to take the realistic long view, who can recognize the potential, when economic conditions improve, offered by two of this nation’s great untapped resources: its women and its older citizens, both of whom are more than ready and willing to make a contribution when they are given a fair break at the workplace.

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