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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (November 12, 2004)

Japan's Depopulation and Unhealthy Family Relationships: A Family Therapist's View

Akiko NAKAGAMI  (President, Happy Print Inc.)

The 2003 vital statistics of opinion polls conducted by the Cabinet Office revealed that Japan's birthrate slipped to an alarming low of 1.29. Japanese women's average age for first marriage and childbirth is steadily increasing. The large number of women who are single, childless, and unemployed in Japan stands out among developed countries. Most of these women continue to live with their parents past marriageable age because of their inability to earn their own living. Embarrassingly, many women still find it difficult to gain independence in a supposedly advanced society like Japan's. Many other developed countries enjoy higher fertility rates of over 2.00. In general, the developed countries who help parenting women continue their work have higher birthrates.

According to another Cabinet Office survey, Japan is ranked 31st among 64 countries in UNDP's Gender Empowerment Measure which measures female participation and contribution to society as a whole. This shows a stark contrast to the country's record in Human Development Index (HDI), another device of UNDP for evaluating a country's general welfare by measuring people's longevity, education level, and purchasing power, ranks Japan 9th out of 162 countries assessed. This makes it plain that, in Japan, women do not enjoy adequate opportunities commensurate with their individual educational achievement.

Many male intellectuals in Japan advocate policies to increase foreign nationals in Japan to complement our declining workforce and argue for the creation of a society more attractive to foreigners to live in. These men may view the Japan's low fertility as problematic only because it contributes to a further decrease in the nation's labor force. However, it is more reasonable to assume that people want to raise a family in their native countries; we should rather keep focus on our people and establish a system that assists women in childrearing so that they think it is worthwhile and enjoyable to bear and raise children in Japan. For example, we should discourage the view, which is more commonly shared among men in managerial positions, that having parenting women in workplace is detrimental to workplace efficiency. The negative view towards employed women who are parenting only encourages women to leave workplace.

In addition, Japanese businesses usually lack an institutional framework to reemploy women who had retired for parenting when they return to the labor market. Our society urgently needs to establish a framework to reintroduce women to work after parenting, and this could become an effective countermeasure against the fertility decline. We should be seriously concerned with the future security of young unmarried women who live off their parents' pensions without jobs and children. Moreover, women in Japan shoulder a disproportionate burden of caring for elderly in their families, and more women than men leave workplace to care for their parents. Japanese men need to participate more and help women in caring and nursing for their family members including children and parents.

The traditional approach to dividing a family's responsibility into income earning for men and housekeeping and parenting for women worked during the high-growth era of 1950's and 60's, but it does not fit today's social and family needs anymore. Physically stronger men apparently earned more than women during the era of industrial development. This is no longer the case, however, and the advancement of information technology and mechanization will gradually deprive men of their innate physical advantage in tomorrow's labor market. One may even argue that physically sturdy men are actually more suited to parenting and nursing care for elderly people than women are. In any case, one's gender will have less impact on his/her occupational choice in the future.

Many troubled families in the United States or Europe visit family therapists for counseling. Grown-up children in those countries actively seek to gain independence from their parents when they reach marriageable age. This should also be the normal family relationships for Japanese people. The unhealthy relationships within Japanese families appear responsible for a series of social issues Japanese people currently face.

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