Commentary / World

Blame gender gap for Japan's low fertility rate

by Haruaki Deguchi

Japan’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime — declined for the third year in a row in 2018 to 1.42, nearly 0.4 points lower than the government’s target of pushing it back up to 1.8, according to demographic statistics from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The number of newborns for the year fell to a record low of around 918,000. The small number of births accelerated the decline in Japan’s population, which fell by 444,000 in 2018.

Among the world’s major economies, the fertility rate in 2017 was 2.30 in India, 1.92 in France, 1.85 in Sweden, 1.79 in Britain, 1.77 in the United States, 1.76 in Russia, 1.63 in China, 1.57 in Germany and 1.50 in Canada — all surpassing Japan. Only Italy, at 1.34, is lower.

What is the fundamental cause of the low fertility rate in Japan? I believe it is sex discrimination. Among developed countries, gender discrimination in Japan is perhaps the strongest. According to the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap index, in 2018 Japan was ranked 111th out of 149 countries — a deplorable outcome. This ranking shows more starkly than anything else just how big the gender gap in Japan really is.

The other day, a young wife posted the following message on Facebook: “Recently in Japan, a growing number of companies are allowing workers to take their children to their workplaces. My husband, who was reading a magazine article about this, asked me, ‘Can you really take our kid to the workplace?’ I retorted, ‘You take the kid to work!’ Astonished, he said, ‘Do I have to? The thought never crossed my mind.’ Perhaps marrying this guy was a mistake. My husband still has a lot to learn.”

As illustrated in this exchange, the idea that women are responsible for housework, raising children and nursing care is still prevalent in Japanese society. Men tend to think they only have to help women do these things. Given a society like this, would a woman who wants to challenge herself and build a career be happy with the choice to have children? Isn’t it clear that the more children they have, the more difficult of a situation they drive themselves into? We need to build a society that — as a whole — supports household chores, child-rearing and nursing care, as well as a society that has men and women share the burden of these tasks equally. Otherwise, it will be impossible to halt the decline in the number of children.

Human history shows that traditionally people raised children and took care of the elderly as a group — that collective childcare and elder care by the whole group was the norm. The whole group also shared the housework of its members, and people routinely performed housework on behalf of others in the group. It is only a more recent practice that each family takes care of its own children and elderly members.

In Japan, some people still hold to the so-called 3-year-old child myth — that a mother should take care of her child until the child turns at least 3 years old. This is a superstition that has no scientific basis either biologically or historically. For humankind, collective childcare as found at nursery schools today is closer to the natural way of raising children.

What should be the first step toward eradicating sexual discrimination in this country? Along with realizing equal pay for men and women in real terms as a matter of course, the first task should be to introduce a quota system for gender equality in every area.

A quota system runs the risk of breeding moral hazards since it has the aspect of unconditionally giving preferential treatment to women. But given the poor state of gender equality in Japan, as highlighted by the World Economic Forum’s rankings, the positives of a quota system are much greater than the negatives. One idea to alleviate concern over the potential drawbacks would be to enact temporary legislation establishing a quota system for 10 years — and let men and women compete on an equal footing once women have sufficiently caught up with men.

The next step would be to provide education founded on science. It first must be taught that in the earlier part of human history a group of people or society as a whole collectively took charge of housework, child-rearing and care for the elderly. We also need to teach the most up-to-date science about family love. A hormone called oxytocin is believed to be behind motherly and family love. Oxytocin is released in large amounts in women’s bodies during labor. But what about men? It has been found that when fathers engage in child care their oxytocin levels rise. In short, taking care of a child leads to the release of oxytocin, which in turn gives rise to family love. To use an extreme argument, the secret to building warm family ties lies in men taking child care leave and engaging in child care.

The third step will be to allow, as soon as possible, married couples to use separate surnames if they so wish. Japan is perhaps the only country among the OECD member states that forces a couple to use the same surname as a condition for legal marriage. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted at the United Nations in 1979 and ratified by Japan in 1985, calls for the introduction of a system that gives husband and wife the choice to use different surnames. The convention stresses the “same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation.”

In requiring the same surname for married couples, Japan’s Civil Code allows married couples to adopt either the husband’s or the wife’s surname. However, in more than 95 percent of the cases, women stop using their original surnames and adopt that of their husband. In short, this is indirect discrimination against women. As seen by the case of Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura shogunate, and his wife, Hojo Masako, husbands and wives in Japan traditionally used different surnames.

The only way to fundamentally turn around Japan’s falling fertility rate is reform that introduces a quota system and changes relevant educational and legal systems to build a society free of gender discrimination where women don’t face difficulties having children, and where society as a whole supports child care as well as nursing care for the elderly.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.

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