By Chelsea Szendi Schieder*
Japan has been declared the world’s first ‘super-aged’ society and a ‘pioneer shrinking society’, rapidly inverting the demographic pyramid upon which the modern state has been built. Since 1989, when the low fertility rate of 1.57 became a major social concern, numbers have continued to trend downward. In June 2020, the Japanese government announced the preliminary results of the 2020 census revealing that the number of births in that year was the lowest on record.
Government efforts since the mid-1990s have focused on encouraging women to have more children. But even if every woman capable of doing so gave birth to three children in the next few years, it would not solve the economic and social effects of the ongoing ‘baby bust’, namely Japan’s labour shortages and the pressing burdens of pensions and elderly care in the near term. It would aggravate rather than address the larger crises associated with urban crowding and ecological devastation. The road ahead for Japan leads into unexplored territory, requiring flexible and creative plans to navigate it.
The 1995 Angel Plan and the 1999 New Angel Plan focused on supporting women who wanted to continue to work while raising children. But urban day care centres still have long waiting lists that force parents — overwhelmingly mothers — to forgo work. Policies focused on encouraging women to work more ignore the ‘second shift’ of domestic work that often falls to women due to general economic insecurity that has also depressed Japan’s birth rate.
Coupling and childbearing in Japan is bundled with a host of social demands around heterosexual marriage, gendered divisions of labour and sacrifices at both work and home. Young people in Japan today are trapped in social systems forged by earlier generations under very different circumstances. They tend to interpret any inability to meet certain pre-existing benchmarks associated with becoming an adult — including employment and marriage — as personal failures and feel powerless to change society.
If young people could be empowered to demand what they need to form the kind of families they want, it would shift the understanding of what constitutes family structure and alleviate individual childcare burdens. The ongoing ‘baby bust’ is already a collective indictment of the current system; the issue then becomes how to articulate individual choices into collective demands.
Some government initiatives have attempted to harness individual dissatisfaction with existing social pressures to revitalise rural regions hit hard by Japan’s demographic implosion. This requires a shift in mainstream concepts of success away from demanding jobs in urban areas considered prestigious. But policies that emphasise individual actions as solutions obscure the government’s responsibility for creating such a profound socioeconomic gap between outer regions and urban centres.
The government could do more to shift the understanding of what constitutes responsibilities within a family, and the definition of family itself. The June 2021 Japanese Supreme Court decision upholding a law that forces married couples to share a surname — a law no other country has — is generally unpopular. Public opinion in favour of same-sex marriage also differs from the government’s stance. While same-sex partnerships are recognised in some areas, adoption is still out of the question for same-sex couples. Japan still only allows for one kind of family.
The demographic crisis presents a provocative challenge to definitions of a healthy society and economy, that enjoys both demographic and economic growth. ‘De-growth’ may be the best option to mitigate the ecological cost of decades of rapid growth. Some observers in Japan have attempted to adopt a positive view of demographic decline, particularly in rural areas. Still, it is difficult to know how many shrinking regions can replicate the few celebrated success stories of rural rejuvenation. Along with urban to rural migration, Japan will also need to grapple with immigration. Many pronatalist arguments have framed increased immigration as an impossibility because of its unpopularity, but opinion polls show that the Japanese population is not categorically opposed to immigration or immigrants. Immigration can alleviate short-term labour shortages, and to be sustainable will require clear communication and support.
The solution to Japan’s demographic crisis will need to be an imaginative policy mix. The demographic crisis may offer an opportunity to interrogate the premise of never-ending growth upon which many modern societies are constituted. Policies will need to embrace new beliefs about the value of care work, the meaning of family, and the opportunities of ‘de-growth’. Those guiding policy will need to account carefully for the actual lived economic, social, and ecological realities of young people in Japan and around the world. For this to happen, young people will need to become more empowered, even if they remain outnumbered.
*About the author: Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a historian and professor in the Department of Economics, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo.
Source: This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Confronting crisis in Japan’, Vol 13, No