Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Japan Struggles to Raise Birthrate Government Targets Japanese Women Who Remain Single into Their 30s in Pursuit of Careers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Japan Struggles to Raise Birthrate Government Targets Japanese Women Who Remain Single into Their 30s in Pursuit of Careers

Article excerpt

RIKA KAWAI, age 24, single, working, and college-educated, is just the type of Japanese woman who annoys her government. She has "delayed" marriage and motherhood.

"I think raising a child would be an interesting experience, but I still want to work," Ms. Kawai says. "I don't think the system is yet in place to do both."

Kawai and other Japanese women like her have been the target of a year-long government campaign to raise the nation's birthrate, which ranks as the world's third lowest after Germany and Italy.

Despite a population of 124 million, Japan is short on Japanese. Some demographers joke that if the present downtrend in reproduction continues, the Japanese race could be extinct in 700 years. Last year, the number of children under 14 years old was the lowest in postwar history.

Faced with the prospect of fewer workers to support a rapidly aging society, Japanese leaders asked 17 agencies and ministries last year to come up with ways to "to create a social environment that would enhance happiness and joy in child rearing."

The unspoken official goal is to somehow get more young people to marry and multiply.

The task is ominous in a society largely built more for work and rapid economic growth, and less for happy family life.

"There are economic, psychological, and housing problems that make it difficult to both work and raise children," says Kazuhiro Kobayashi, chief of the Health and Welfare Ministry's division for children's environment-building measures.

As more young people have become aware that their lifestyles lag behind those in the West, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa unveiled a slogan last year to turn Japan into a "livable superpower" and he set up a council to advise him how to do it.

"Public opinion polls show that while most Japanese believe Japan to be an economic power, many feel their quality of life has not kept pace with economic development," says Isamu Miyazaki, the group's chairman.

The government has given top priority to reducing working hours to bring Japan in line with Western nations. But employers have resisted slashing employee time by the requested 20 percent.

The primary blame for the dearth of tots is placed on the rising number of women in their 20s who are single. Single young men are not given nearly as much blame. One former minister even suggested that letting women go to college was not helping the nation's birthrate.

"I wish they would consider instead the working conditions for women," says Hiroko Takahashi, a professor at Kumamoto Junior College.

The birthrate has fallen steadily over the past few decades to 1.53 children per woman, defying a past prediction that it would not dip below 1.57. The latest prediction by the Health and Welfare Ministry is that the rate may drop to 1. …

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