The “baby-making machine” comment by a senior politician continues to reverberate through Japanese society. One might forgive a slip of the tongue, yet whenever the age-old misunderstanding between men and women re-emerges, it always exposes more ironies and issues than, simply, whose turn it is to get up in the middle of the night and take care of the baby. Indeed, if there are any babies.

“Machine” is the least appropriate metaphor. During pregnancy, women run through such a gamut of emotions that “machine” is about the last thing most fathers-to-be would come up with. After birth, of course, it is minds, not bodies, that do the work. If all this were machine work, one would have long ago been invented to take care of midnight crying and feeding. Machines would never become sleep-deprived. Neither, of course, could they smile and coo with affection.

The biological irony is that men, not women, are really the baby-making machines. After men drop off a genetic packet, they are, biologically speaking, unnecessary. And with the advent of sperm banks, even more so. Perhaps it is being reproductively equaled by a test tube that makes so many men so uneasy.

Why are Japanese women not having children? For the same reason Japanese men traditionally helped very little in the household — they are busy working.

One worries when the government seems to have not noticed one of the most amazing changes in Japanese history. Japanese women have secured important positions in publishing, communications, academics and sophisticated services. While they may be lagging in male bastions like hard sciences and heavy industries, within another baby-less generation, they will be in upper management. And maybe even in the government.

One need not look at the statistics to see this remarkable shift. Numbers tell part of the story, but a glance around the society tells the rest. One can see as many young women in job-hunting outfits as young men.

Or step into any office and see women working away at desks right beside men. If they are baby-making machines at home, they are human beings in the workplace.

But, back to the babies. One does wonder about the reasons and forces behind Japan’s declining birthrate, especially since baby making is nowadays safer and easier than at any time in human history. It would be easy to assume women have somehow lost their maternal instincts or are in denial about one possibility in life. If so, the same applies to men.

After all, it still takes two to tango: Japanese men are just as responsible for making babies as women.

This reproductive refusal, if that’s what it is, brings to mind the famous Greek drama, “Lysistrata.” In this 2,000-year-old play, the women of a small city-state decide to stop having sex with men until they halt a senseless war. The men, driven to frustration, eventually give in, halt the war, and all returns to normal. The comedy focused not only on the ironies of sexuality but more importantly on freedom of choice and social harmony.

In real modern societies, though, the dynamics are more complicated. Having children is perhaps one of the most personal and private decisions anyone can make. With the increasing openness and declining verticality in Japanese society, women can now make more choices of their own in more areas of their lives. That is not a failure of the society, but a success.

This turning away from babies should not be seen as a rejection of Japanese tradition, nor as a refusal to continue the species. Instead, it seems a step toward self-dignity and equality, a desire to fully share in the success of Japan’s modern society. It is men, after all, who have for the past two generations made work seem so appealing, gratifying and central to life. Reproductive downturn is one of the side effects of these social gains.

It remains to be seen, though, if the next step will occur. Will baby making ever again become popular? Pendulums swing but not always in predictable ways. Babies might just well become the most fashionable of accessories. When that happens, droves of women will have them. No woman would dare be seen without a designer stroller and name-brand diapers. The government should start planning for this next baby-boom mania right away. Marketing specialists probably already are.

Whatever happens, governments are better at offering support like maternity-leave regulations and day-care facilities than they are at convincing people to do what they are told. Reproduction might eventually even “naturally” return to “normal” levels, though “natural” and “normal” are difficult terms to clearly define. What is sure is that in the future, baby making and baby raising will never again be what they were once traditionally imagined to be.

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