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The continuing precipitous decline in Japan’s birthrate — in 1999 it was at the all-time low of 1.34 births per woman during her lifetime — has long troubled planners in both the government and the private sector. Now Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has put himself at the center of the issue by calling for the creation of a government panel that would come up with plans to help Japan’s working women have children and rear them even though employed.

The panel would be set up under the Council for Gender Equality in the new Cabinet Office. One question it would tackle is whether the government should provide childbirth allowances — New Komeito, a coalition partner along with the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Conservative Party, wants interest-free loans made available to help meet childbirth costs. The panel would also seek ways to encourage employers to grant longer maternity leaves. The goal is for working women to have fewer financial worries about getting married and having children.

Mr. Mori lost no time in appearing to take forceful action to get the panel under way before the major realignment of central government ministries, which took effect last Saturday. He is said to have been in contact with the former Health and Labor ministries about his proposal only days before they were combined into the new Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry. But even assuming the most genuine intentions behind the prime minister’s idea, it remains debatable whether many young working women can have high hopes for the panel when it is promoted by a government in which women continue to play a secondary role.

Although overt sexual harassment at the workplace has been reduced and promotion opportunities for women have modestly increased since revisions in the Equal Employment Opportunity Law went into effect in 1999, the law still lacks real teeth. Thus, many women’s groups are not optimistic that any meaningful assistance for working women to marry and have children, and be able to return to their jobs, will be forthcoming.

The lack of enthusiasm could be expected at a time when the age at which Japanese men and women marry for the first time continues to rise and more women are insisting that issues of when, or even if, they are to marry, much less whether they are to raise a family and how many children they will have, are entirely private matters. They do not want to hear any opposing views from the central government. Yet even the most sanguine futurologists project serious problems for Japanese society if the birthrate continues to fall, with the long-term result of a decline in the nation’s total population.

Not least among the problems would be the far heavier social-security burden imposed on working men and women because of the greatly increased number of elderly people, especially those requiring special care. Long-range predicting can be tricky, however, since surprises are invariably in store. Based on marriage registrations in the first 10 months of the year, the Health Ministry estimates that 788,000 Japanese couples tied the knot in 2000, an impressive increase of 26,000 over the figure for 1999. Since 32,000 couples registered their marriages on New Year’s Day alone, however, the ministry believes the increase may be an anomaly caused by a rush to wed at the start of the new millennium, even though that distinction rightly belongs to this year.

That does not explain why some 1.19 million births took place last year, an impressive increase of 11,000 over the lowest-ever figure in 1999, since the ministry did not indicate that most of the births occurred late in the year. The government’s crediting the extra day in 2000, since it was a leap year, is also moot. Other factors may have been at work — and may be continuing — which the prime minister and his advisers should keep under consideration. The popular media, for example, have given wide coverage to an apparent spurt of weddings over the New Year’s holidays among well-known sports and entertainment personalities.

What the prime minister seems to be overlooking is that one of the major problems facing working women in this country is the pressure they are under to quit their jobs after they marry or give birth. At the very end of last year, officials of the former Labor Ministry announced plans for the coming fiscal year to promote the re-employment of such women who want to work again, after they reach their 30s and 40s, in positions of responsibility, not the usual low-pay, part-time jobs requiring few skills. That is a subject Mr. Mori’s proposed panel needs to explore in depth with the combined Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry.

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