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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #19: December 11, 2002

The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Three Italy-Japan Comparisons

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University), Richard J. Samuels (Professor and Director - Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and William T. Stonehill (Contributor, NBR'S Japan Forum)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.


William Stonehill: Parallels have often been drawn, during the Cold War, between the LDP in Japan and the Christian Democrats in Italy. Parallels do not stop there. There are also the very strong similarities of extremely low birthrates and "Parasite 20s and 30s".*

Richard Samuels: Japan and Italy seem so completely different. And, of course, Italy and Japan are different. But as Mr. Stonehill notes, they have tracked parallel paths to the present, paths that hold important lessons for us all.**

Sean Curtin: In his forthcoming book (Machiavelli's Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan) Richard Samuels masterfully demonstrates that there are some fascinating political parallels to be made between Italy and Japan. Furthermore, as William Stonehill indicates with regard to low birthrates and adult offspring dependency, a Japan-Italy comparison is also highly illuminating. In Italy, these two familial trends are strongly linked and the findings of Italian demographers (such as Rossella Palomba) offer fascinating insights into Japanese social trends.

Except for the United States and Sweden, all industrially advanced countries will experience population declines between now and 2025 due to falling fertility rates. These drops are due to large declines in the fertility of younger age groups, which are not compensated for by increases in fertility in later years. Analysis shows that falling fertility in these countries is the result of (i) deliberate decisions to have fewer births and (ii) postponements of births that result in many planned future births never occurring. Italy and Japan are two countries in which these trends are particularly prominent.

Demographic analysis shows that in Italy the fall in fertility is associated with (i) rising age at the time of leaving home, (ii) declining marriage rates with low rates of cohabitation, (iii) high youth unemployment and (iv) prolonged education. All these trends can also clearly be seen in contemporary Japanese society.

Italian demographers speak of their society in terms of an 'unbreakable chain' in which childbearing follows marriage, which follows independence from the family/parents, which follows employment, which follows the completion of education. Successive cohorts are achieving each link of this 'unbreakable chain' sequence later in life, leaving fewer years for childbearing. Japanese demographers (such as Miho Iwasawa) have produced research which shows similar trends in Japan. Of course, other factors also come into the Italian fertility equation, such as trends and patterns of contraceptive use, but the 'unbreakable chain' scenario is the most important element.

At present, many young Italians remain in the parental home even after financial independence is achieved. According to Italian demographers, these young people enjoy a low level of restrictions on their comings and goings, little domestic responsibility, and have their household expenses met by their parents, which Italian demographers conclude make it "almost unreasonable" to leave home. These trends are exactly the same as the ones identified by Masahiro Yamada in his (in)famous book on "parasite singles" (Parasaito shinguru no jidai), who are supposed to be unique to Japan.

In fact, Japanese young people being more dependant on parents for a longer period than earlier cohorts is in no way a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. An overwhelming body of research material decisively proves that the trend is quite common in many European countries ranging from Spain to Britain. I have previously written on how the entire concept of "parasite singles" as a uniquely Japanese phenomenon is fatally flawed (links below***). Comparisons with Italy reinforce this view and blow another massive hole in the uniqueness claim of the notion.

It should be noted that while Japanese birthrates are low, Southern Europe's are the lowest in the world. However, considering the fact that a substantial number of people, like "parasite singles" author Yamada, make enormous amounts of money from writing books about imagined or exaggerated Japanese uniqueness, I doubt many Japanese will ever hear about the excellent work of Italian and Japanese demographers that disprove the uniqueness aspect of the theory. Recently, professor Yamada has been busy working the lecture tour circuit to promote his latest money-spinning idea, "parasite couples." Maybe it is time somebody wrote a book on "parasite professors."


References

* Yukio Hatoyama: comparative
William T. Stonehill, NBR'S JAPAN FORUM, 5 December 2002


** Yukio Hatoyama: comparative
Richard J. Samuels, NBR'S JAPAN FORUM, 5 December 2002


*** Parasite Singles: International Perspective and Analysis
J. Sean Curtin, NBR'S JAPAN FORUM, 6 August 2001


Contemporary Japan in Historical Perspective: Parasite Singles
J. Sean Curtin, Cleveland State University, 7 August 2001
[This link has the same article as above, but at the end some other comments and useful links have been added]


The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Two - Comments on the Proposed Numerical Targets for Childcare Leave
J. Sean Curtin & Len Schoppa, Social Trends: Series #18, GLOCOM Platform, 25 November 2002


The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part One - Numerical Targets for Childcare Leave
Social Trends: Series #17, GLOCOM Platform, 18 November 2002

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