A trip to Japan, and to Tokyo in particular, reveals an apparent paradox between a deep respect for tradition and spirituality and an increasing immersion in digital and fantasy realms. Visiting the streets of the city’s Akihabara district on any after work evening reveals crowds of (mainly) men – known as otaku — in search of the latest anime, manga and game merchandise or ritualised interactions in ‘maid cafés‘.
There is a widely held view that such men – and women – are choosing these alternative lifestyles over attachment in the real world. While Japanese people may joke about this, it reveals a genuine anxiety: Japan is facing a worrying decline in the number of marriages and births and, at the same time, a rapidly ageing population.
There are, of course, many factors contributing to the low birthrate, be they societal, economic or personal. But rising absorption in interactive media rather than traditional face-to-face interactions certainly is a contributory factor. Yet one more distraction from making babies is the last thing the country needs.
Japan has the world’s oldest population
Japan’s population is old. Almost 30% of the population is currently over the age of 65, and one in ten is aged 80 or older. The proportion of the population in paid employment is consequently squeezed: the country’s low birth rates and rising life expectancy have reduced the domestic workforce (those aged 15 to 64 years) to less than 60% of the total population. A shrinking workforce means increased pressure on those working to support retired people.
Long-term care services and benefits in Japan are paid for through the long-term care insurance (LTCI) system, established in 2000. The LTCI is funded half by public money from central and local governments and half by insurance premiums. Every Japanese citizen over 40 years old must join the LTCI and pay these premiums. In response to the increasing demand for care, LTCI fees have consistently increased over the past decade.
Although these premiums are at present relatively small (the average monthly premium is currently around 6,000 yen (about £32)), it is projected that, by 2030, Japan will face a deficit of 1.5 million economically active workers and so this obligation will only increase. Things are looking rather bleak for the average Japanese worker, as well as for those needing care.
But Japan also has one of the lowest birthrates
Stretched social and medical care for Japan’s older people is also putting a material strain on younger family members, who increasingly must step in to look after ageing relatives. This added burden can only have a further negative effect on the making of Japanese babies. The role of carer falls mainly to women, who are already increasingly torn between trying to maintain a career (which the government is strongly encouraging to maintain a tax-paying workforce) and parenthood.
In Japan, the traditional expectation remains for a mother to give up work to raise the children. However, Japan is no longer the economic miracle it was, and the yen has slid in value relative to other currencies. For most Japanese couples, two salaries are needed to meet everyday living costs. And so, many Japanese couples are choosing not to have children at all.
The result of all this is that the average Japanese woman will have 1.3 children, which is well below the rate needed just to sustain the population (2.1 children per couple). The number of newborns in Japan fell to below 800,000 last year, a 20% decrease in just eight years. This seismic demographic shift is forecast to have enormous consequences for Japan’s workforce.
Japan’s work culture compounds the problem
Japan is infamous for its absurdly inadequate work-life balance. Eighty-hour weeks and ‘salarymen’ sleeping under their office desks are still quite commonplace. Individuals are left without the time or energy conducive to dating and planning a family.
In 2008, Japanese experts, foreseeing today’s critical situation, told people to “go home early and multiply”. A study at the time involving married couples under the age of 50 found that over one-third reported not engaging in sexual activity in the preceding month. A significant number of these couples attributed their lack of intimacy to feelings of fatigue or a shortage of energy.
There have been several attempts to correct this imbalance by legislation, introducing novelties such as exempting employees with children under three from overtime. However, the work culture in Japan has proved extremely resistant to reform.
Other attempts to slow the crisis
A fairly obvious solution to Japan’s demographic crisis, at least in part, would be to import labour from overseas. This is problematic on several grounds. Japan is often characterised as a very homogeneous society, because of the dominance of the ethnic Japanese population. While there are ethnic minorities in Japan, including the Ainu, Ryukyuan people, Koreans and others, these populations are largely subsumed into the dominant Japanese culture, and there are already issues around inclusivity and equal rights for these communities.
Foreign workers in Japan, especially those who don’t fit the traditional image of a Japanese person, may at times experience instances of discrimination or prejudice. This can occur in various contexts, such as housing, employment or social interactions. So, attempts to draft in foreign help are fraught with difficulty. Almost 40% of Japanese don’t approve of foreign workers, despite the desperate need for them. Government attempts to expand programmes for foreign workers, including nurses, have been largely thwarted from the outset by restrictive requirements, such as workers having to return home after three to five years.
So, what is the answer?
Addressing Japan’s demographic challenges requires a multi-faceted approach, including social, economic and cultural interventions. “Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” said Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, back in January. “Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.”
In April, Kishida launched the Children and Families Agency, the mission of which is to achieve a ‘children-centred’ society by implementing initiatives ranging from support programmes for pregnancy and child-rearing to addressing child abuse and poverty. It crosses several Japanese government ministries with ‘unprecedented’ powers to increase births, by such means as allowances for households raising children and financial support for workers taking parental leave.
Japan needs to foster a societal environment that encourages and accommodates diverse family structures. It will be some time before we know whether Prime Minister Kishida’s vision will bear fruit – and children. Japan is depending upon its success. And much of the rest of the world will look on with great interest: what is happening in Japan, in terms of birthrate and an ageing population, is also happening in much of Asia and most of the western world.