Without Babies, Can Japan Survive?

Alexandra Harney, New York Times, December 15, 2012

The first grade class at the elementary school in Nanmoku, about 85 miles from Tokyo, has just a single student this year. The local school system that five decades ago taught 1,250 elementary school children is now educating just 37. Many of the town’s elegant wooden homes are abandoned. Where generations of cedar loggers, sweet potato farmers and factory workers once made their lives, monkeys now reside. {snip}

Nanmoku’s plight is Japan’s fate. Faced with an aging society, a depopulating countryside and economic stagnation, the country has struggled for decades to address its challenges. As Japan goes to the polls on Dec. 16 for parliamentary elections that will most likely mean the seventh prime minister in six years, voters need to demand that politicians address the most important issue of all: the country’s low birthrate.

Sadly, this issue is hardly being discussed on the campaign trail. {snip}

Nowhere is the rapid aging of Japan more visible than in rural towns like Nanmoku, where 56 percent of local residents are over 65. Over the next 25 years, the proportion of Japan’s population that is elderly will rise from almost one in four to one in three. Sales of adult diapers will soon surpass those of baby diapers.

{snip}

Just as America has its military-industrial complex, Japan—whose constitution forbids a formal army—has its “construction state.” Public largess went to pouring concrete across the country. It’s clear now that Japan should have been less focused on building bridges to nowhere and more focused on making babies.

Although Japanese couples consistently say in surveys that they would like to have more than two children, they don’t. Part of the problem is Japan’s prolonged economic malaise. Years of stagnant (or declining) incomes have made Japanese men less attractive as potential partners. And economic uncertainty has led couples to delay getting married and having children. The shortage of public day care centers, especially in cities, has made the cost and burden of parenthood so high that today’s couples either have fewer babies or none at all. (Japan’s birthrate is just 1.39 children per woman.)

The government provides subsidized day care, but there is a long waiting list in big cities. Working parents often end up paying more to send their kids to private centers. While there is no exact international comparison, a 2009 survey by the Japanese government found that the first five years of child rearing, including savings, cost around $73,000, more than 2.5 times as much as in the United States.

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