Gender Gap

By Yim, Soojin | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Gender Gap


Yim, Soojin, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

According to a 1997 study, today's Japanese woman will give birth to an average of 1.39 children during her lifetime. This birthrate is one of the lowest in the world, an it has been in steady decline since the mid-1970s. This persistent decline is not merely a social curiosity; it anticipates the eventual abdication of Japan's place as one of Asia's foremost economic powers. The major cause of declining birthrates is the fact that women are delaying marriage. More women are pursuing the economic opportunities afforded by Japan's status as an economic superpower.

Text:

Marriage and Birthrate in Japan

According to a 1997 study, today's Japanese women will give birth to an average of 1.39 children during their lifetime.

This birthrate is one of the lowest in the world, and it has been in steady decline since the mid-1970s. This persistent decline is not merely a social curiosity; it anticipates the eventual abdication of Japan's place as one of Asia's foremost economic powers.

At a time when the developing world struggles with overpopulation, declining birth rates, or "birth dearth," is the complementary problem in industrialized nations. In japan, this problem is especially severe. The Health and Welfare Ministry predicts that by the end of the 21st century Japan's population will have fallen by 50 percent, from the current population of 125 million to 67 million. Fewer babies mean fewer workers and an aging population. At current rates, by 2050-the Japanese labor force will have shrunk from 70 percent to 55 percent of the population, while the elderly population will have risen from 15 percent to 30 percent. Due to this growth in the elderly population, the shrinking labor force will be saddled with growing social security premiums, which cut into effective wages. Lower effective wages decrease worker incentives, and thus worker productivity drops. The reduced spending power of workers, together with the declining population, also decreases demand in the market. Moreover, a smaller workforce makes labor expensive and often times insufficient for local businesses. To cope with a limited labor market and decreased domestic demand and productivity, multinational businesses will likely avoid Japan or relocate themselves to more profitable markets. Thus, Japan's low birthrate portends potential economic disaster, and as Japan moves into the 211, century it may find itself unable to compete with economic powers like China that have larger workforces.

Because of these far-reaching ramifications, the problem of low birthrate is one that the Japanese government cannot ignore. At first glance, the remedy seems simple: more women should get married, stay at home, and have more babies. But a deeper inspection reveals the actual root of Japan's birthrate problem rests in the country's rigid gender roles.

The major cause of declining birthrates is the fact that women are delaying marriage. In 1970, 18.1 percent of women between 25 and 29 were unmarried; by 1995, this figure had risen to 48 percent. More women are pursuing the opportunities afforded by Japan's status as an economic superpower, such as education and professional careers. In a society characterized by rigid demarcations between the roles of men and women in the workplace and in the home, many women feel marriage will trap them in the role of mother and wife and leave little room for pursuits outside the home. As a result, modern Japanese women have become more stubborn in refusing to give up their careers for marriage and children. For ambitious women, the opportunity cost of marriage-their careers-is too high.

The view of marriage as a social trap is especially valid in Japan. Every Japanese mother is essentially a single parent, since most wives single-handedly tend to the home and to their children with little help from their husbands. …

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