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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (February 22, 2007)

Stone-Age Mindset That Shackles Japan

Kevin Rafferty (Author of "Inside Japan's Powerhouses")

Hakuo Yanagisawa should be hailed as a hero for modern Japanese times, and an annual award should be instituted in his memory. It would also be worthwhile to consider erecting a statue in his honour, though there should be a debate over the material used: it should either be of some very cheap and nasty stuff that would last a long time as a memorial to his stupidity, or something biodegradable that would waste away in public view.

The minister of health, labour and welfare's contribution to modern Japanese life was to make a remark that showed how stupid and arrogant male Japanese politicians can be. In lamenting Japan's falling birth rate, he described women as "child-bearing machines", saying that "[since] the number of women is fixed, the number of child-bearing machines or devices is fixed, so all we can do is ask them to do their best per head".

Since his comments, the world of Japanese politics has been filled with still more hot air, sound and fury that further testifies to the stupidity and arrogance of the men. The opposition saw a chance and had the bright idea of boycotting key committees of the Diet in their demand for the minister's resignation. It failed.

These politicians are rightly called ishi-atama (stone brain). Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition government continued with budget discussions in spite of the absent opposition. That's just what it did when it passed an overarching education law - against the wishes of most teachers - that the prime minister dreams will create a new generation of loyal, country-loving Japanese citizens.

Mr Abe will now steamroll ahead with plans to write a new constitution that will create freshly patriotic Japanese. They will respect his "beautiful country" where the rivers have been dammed; where concrete and steel rule over traditional Japanese architecture; and where women know their place as baby-bearing devices to produce more patriotic Japanese.

Any self-respecting leader would have sacked the minister. Any opposition worth putting in charge of the government would have suggested practical policies that might attract women to marry, have families and raise the plummeting birth rate. But the problem with ishi-atama leaders is that they cannot see the real world outside their own heads. Japan does have a problem with a falling birth rate. On present projections, the population of 127 million is likely to decline to between 85 and 90 million by 2055. More alarmingly, the percentage of people aged 65 or over will double to 40 per cent of the population, creating a terrible burden in terms of the costs of health and welfare care, and pensions.

Japan is in danger of becoming a society without children. The terrible irony that the stone-brained politicians do not understand is that Japanese women are the solution, but need to be treated with new respect. In spite of some large social changes, Japan is still a male-dominated society. Now, women are rebelling and deciding to continue working and living at home rather than getting married. A former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, confirmed his own ishi-atama credentials by calling such women parasaito (parasites).

If they marry and have children, it is hard for women to continue working because Japanese men are the laziest in the world when it comes to household chores. Then there is the limited number of childcare centres and the reluctance of the government to allow foreign domestic helpers into Japan.

Mr Yanagisawa and Mr Abe should venture down from their imaginary beautiful Japan and have a word with Kathy Matsui about how to solve real problems in the real world. Ms Matsui is an American of Japanese descent who has distinguished herself as an economist, becoming managing director, chief Japan strategist and co-director of pan-Asian investment research for Goldman Sachs Japan. She is also married and has children.

She coined the word "womenomics" to describe the policy that Japan should pursue - encourage women into the workforce, use their skills and promote them while relaxing the immigration policies on domestic helpers. "Robots can't raise kids," says Ms Matsui, who had to fight hard to be allowed to employ a Filipino helper. Encouraging women would not only help increase the workforce, says Ms Matsui: it would lift Japan's growth and raise per-capita income by 5.8 per cent over the next 20 years.

If Japan does not make better use of the hidden 50 per cent of Japanese society, it will have to import labour on a huge scale as the population declines and the numbers over the age of 65 increase. It would seem to be a no-brainer, except to politicians whose brains have been set in stone.

(Originally appeared in the February 22, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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