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Agence France-Presse, July 22, 2004

Japan facing de-population as social values change

TOKYO -- Confronted with a record low birth rate and increasing numbers of elderly, Japan is trying to revive the desire to have children to combat the long-term threat of de-population predicted by demographers.

Japan's 2003 fertility rate of 1.29 children per woman, announced last month by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is the country's lowest ever, and demographers estimate that by 2050 the country's population could drop to 100 million from its present level of 127 million.

Fifty years later, they say that figure could fall to 64 million and warn that if unchecked, this trend could cause Japan's population to collapse within a few centuries.

Among the prime causes are the sharp increase in both late marriages and in Japanese choosing to remain single, while the year-on-year drop in birth rate since 1990 has also contributed to the decline, said Tetsuo Yoshioka, who heads the health ministry unit dealing with the falling birth rate.

According to Yoshioka, both Japanese men and women are marrying for the first time two years later on average than their counterparts in 1975.

At the same time, the numbers of Japanese remaining unmarried have exploded. Non-married men between the ages of 25 and 29 jumped from 48.3 percent in 1975 to 69.3 percent in 2000.

For women, the increase is much more dramatic -- some 54 percent of the same age group was single in 2000, compared with only 20.9 percent in 1975.

"Since the passage in 1985 of the law on equal work opportunities for the sexes, these women have the chance to work and earn their living, meaning they have no incentive to marry nor have children," said Takayo Yamamoto, an expert on societal norms and lifestyles.

"On top of that, their parents do not push them towards marriage at all costs, as was the case traditionally when marriage was regarded as the "hanamichi" (the path to glory) for children."

Having children out of wedlock is also frowned upon in socially conservative Japan, a health ministry official said.

"To have children and raise them without being married is not done, and is viewed very negatively," the official said.

"Marriage is an essential precondition for be integrated into society as a parent."

For Junko Sakai, a leading writer and author of the bestseller "Howl of the Loser Dogs," an account of the plight of single career women, the sharp drop in the birth rate, especially in the last two years, is a reflection of increasing individualization in Japanese society.

"These women have become more individualistic and the men balk at sacrificing their freedom on the altar of marriage and fatherhood," she said, while noting the "anguish" this causes Japanese women.

"Without role models, these women are lost and ill prepared for the role of motherhood. Japan is one of those rare countries where rearing children is perceived as more of a burden than a pleasure."

According to Yamamoto, "These women rationalize too much rather than listen to their instincts."

Faced with this looming demographic catastrophe, in 2003 the government introduced legislation to aid the development of future generations and "restore the desire to have children," that will take effect next April.

The law includes some 30 measures to "encourage solidarity, the education of children, and stress the crucial role of the family and to enable women to reconcile work and family life."

"Let us create a favorable environment -- parents should be proud to raise children," is the health ministry's official position.

But even then, women would have to "want to have children with men who are more and more effeminate," observed Sakai in a wry comment on one of the new tendencies of Japanese society, particularly evident in advertising.

<< Agence France Presse -- 7/22/04 >>

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