Cultural Anthropology

Japans Population Crisis



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On November 25, 1970, the famous and eccentric Japanese poet and playwright, Yukio Mishima, directed and starred in what was arguably his most dramatic role that of his own death. After seizing control of a defense force compound and taking a high-ranking military official hostage, Mishima commited "seppeku," ritual suicide in the manner of the ancient samurai. The causes that brought Mishima to this bold and violent end were as complex as the man himself, but it was, at least in part, a protest against what he perceived to be the corruption of Japanese culture by Western influences. In short, he felt that Japan had lost her soul.
Though his life was intriguing and his literary contributions many, this paper is not about Mishima, but rather about the question of whether Japan has indeed been adversely affected by so-called Western influences. Because no one essay could possibly cover the enormous breadth and depth of Japan's history and culture, nor even the complexities of her interaction with Western societies, this paper will focus on one particular phenomenon that of Japan's rapidly declining birthrate. The problem of low birthrate is, of course, not an exclusively Japanese one. The United States and much of western Europe have also seen marked declines in birthrate over the past several decades. But it certainly can be argued that it is in Japan where the problem and its ramifications, both present and projected, are most evident. In this paper, based primarily on my observations and experiences during the four years I lived in Japan, I hope to convey examples that demonstrate the reality of Japan's low birthrate, its consequences, and some of the causes that may lie at the core of the issue.
For four years, from 1996 to 2000, I was employed as a teacher of English in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan. During that time, I met and married a Japanese woman, and our first son was born there. I vividly recall going with my wife to the clinic to verify that she was indeed with child. After confirming that she was, the first thing the doctor asked us, in a rather matter-of-fact manner, was whether we wanted to keep the baby. I remember with equal clarity my offense to the question as, in my mind, there really was no question to be asked. A baby had been conceived and, in accordance with natural law, that child would be nurtured and brought into the world. To this day, I don't know whether the doctor's question was a matter of protocol within the Japanese healthcare system, but it left a lasting impression upon me, one that I would reflect back upon many times.
The first time I saw my newborn son was from behind the large window of the post-delivery room in which there were some twenty-five little beds. But only two of those beds were occupied: one by my son and one by a baby girl who had been born the same day. Though filled with the joy of becoming a new father, I couldn't help but be struck by the image of this room with so many empty little beds. I didn't give the matter too much thought at the time, reasoning that perhaps it was just a "slow" time of the year.
Several weeks later, my wife and I received an unexpected sum of money from the prefectural government. At that time, it was roughly the equivalent of $3,000 U.S. When I asked why we were being given this money, my wife discovered that it was an incentive to encourage couples to have more children. This fascinated me because (as I confess with some embarrassment), until that time, I had been oblivious to the fact that Japan is facing a low birthrate crisis. The subsequent research I conducted on this issue caused me further embarrassment, as the data is plain as day for anyone with eyes to see.
What also struck me was the stark contrast between our doctor's initial question and the cash "reward" we received. It seemed I was living in a culture that, on the one hand, did not wholeheartedly embrace the sanctity of new life but yet, on the other hand, recognized that there was a problem stemming from the lack of it. It was like some kind of cultural schizophrenia which I likened to a race in which an official at the finish line holds out a prize, yet another official at the starting gate asks runners whether, in fact, they really want to run at all.
Once my eyes were opened to the reality of the birthrate issue, it was amazing how many more telltale signs I observed over the subsequent months and years. Though I primarily taught at a junior high school, I was also asked to periodically visit area kindergartens and nursery schools. Almost without exception, the schools I visited were ones that had clearly been built to accommodate relatively large numbers of children. But the number of children actually present at any of these schools was far, far less. I visited one nursery school, for example, that had been built twenty years ago to accommodate fifty children, but had an enrollment of only eight.
The starkest example I encountered was an elementary school that had been built for a student population of at least one hundred. There were several full-size classrooms, a large gymnasium, library, playground, swimming pool, and parking lot. But I was astounded to discover upon my first visit that there was only one student. One student with one teacher. Not wanting to seem impolite, yet unable to supress my curiosity, I asked the teacher why this large school remained open for a single student. He explained that, by law, the school had to remain open at least until transportation arrangements could be made to bus the boy to a neighboring village. Of course, as he reminisced with obvious sadness, there was a time when the school was filled with the sounds of children at play and the teachers who instructed them. My mind flashed back to the birth of my son and the room full of empty beds.
I would later attend an autumn festival in my village at which elders traditionally take turns calling out the names of babies born that year. But that portion of the festival was very short and somewhat awkward, as there were dozens of senior citizens, but only three names to be called. I heard similar stories from other towns and villages in the area in which there were sometimes no names at all. I also recall a trip to the city of Fukuoka where I witnessed the bizarre sight of elderly women cuddling robotic dolls. It was explained to me that women buy these expensive dolls because they have no grandchildren to dote upon. The dolls, which apparently sell in huge quantities, tell their owners how much they love them and welcome them when they walk back into the room. The more I saw sights such as these, the more I realized that, despite all the beauty of Japan and her rich culture, something was terribly wrong.
In 2000, I returned to the U.S. with my new family, and I now teach Japanese at a high school in northwestern New Jersey. Earlier this year, one of my students asked whether it is true that Japanese law allows only one child per family. I explained that she was confusing Japan with China, and this led to a discussion in which I shared with the class the reality of Japan's low birthrate.
I cited the following statistic which comes directly from a white paper published by the Japanese government in 2004. In 1950, there were approximately twenty-eight births for every thousand people in the population. In 2007, that number was only eight births for every thousand. When one pauses even briefly to consider it, the difference is staggering. It's also interesting to note that the average number of children per Japanese family today is, low and behold, one the same as in China. The difference being that, in China, it's by state mandate; in Japan, it's by choice.
After I'd explained the reality of Japan's rapidly declining birthrate over the past half century, the reaction of my class was just as staggering as any statistic I'd cited. One of my students responded, "Well, gee, Mr. Cibenko, isn't that a good thing? I mean, after all, Japan is such a crowded country. Isn't it good that the birthrate is down?" Of course, for most of my students, their vision of Japan is limited to television images of overcrowded subway trains during the Tokyo rush hour. I tried to explain that this image, although real, is not an accurate depiction of the greater reality. My students' reaction, though perhaps dismissible as nave, actually reflects a common modern view, namely that reproductive restriction is part of being a "responsible" world citizen. (I ended the class by suggesting to my students that they ponder the passage from Isaiah 5:20, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil")
When held up to the light of reason, the view that having fewer children is the answer to society's problems is revealed to be as short sighted as it is false. And the Japanese themselves, at least on some practical level, understand this. The white paper I cited previously states quite plainly that "the foundations of communities, police, fire and other basic services, will be threatened by the country's declining birthrate and aging population." The paper goes on to identify the all-too-obvious source of the problem - the Japanese are simply not having enough children. For a nation to replace its population, each woman must have an average of 2.1 children per family. Japanese women average a disastrously low one child. (Again, even though my students mistakenly confused Japan and China, the reality in terms of birthrate is the same in both countries.)
According to the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency's annual report on world demographics, Japan's population peaked in 2005, and will plunge from its current 127 million to just 89 million in 2050. This would be a decline of thirty percent. Japan is currently the oldest nation on Earth, in terms of median age. The median age in Japan today is 43 years old (which, from the data I've read, is twice the age of many African nations). Japan will continue to hold this title (which is less desirable than it might appear on the surface) through the year 2050, when the average age in Japan is projected to be 61 years old. (Here in the U.S., there has been much talk about how the social security system will be able to provide for the needs of our own aging population as Baby Boomers enter into their twilight years. In Japan, this problem is even more immediate and severe, since restrictions on immigration prevent what arguably might otherwise be one way to offset the economic effects of the low birthrate.) An increasing number of Japanese leaders are looking for the "easy way" out of the dilemma of over-aging, as evidenced by last year's recommendation by the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine to allow euthanasia for the terminally ill. (Here we see Japan following in the erroneous steps of another western culture, namely that of the Netherlands.)
At one time, I might have been inclined to believe that low birthrate was simply a regional problem, limited to that part of southern Japan where I'd lived. But as I follow Japanese news programs and government reports, signs of declining population throughout Japan are evident. On last year's "Kodomo No Hi" (Children's Day), the government soberly noted that the number of children in Japan has declined for the twenty-sixth consecutive year. Over the past decade, more than two-thousand junior and senior high schools have closed due to lack of children. (And many of these have been converted into homes for the elderly.) As I recently viewed a news report on NHK television stating that more than 60,000 teachers are unemployed due to a lack of children to teach, I couldn't help but wonder if that teacher I met at the one-student school still has a job. That same program reported that nearly one hundred Japanese children's theme parks have closed in recent years, and that more and more pediatricians are switching specialties to become geriatricians.
The reality of Japan's declining birthrate is no secret. The government of Japan has been quite candid about the issue and the data is there for anyone to plainly see. What is interesting is that, as Americans, we generally retain a view of Japan as a nation that is thriving, energetic, even youthful. It is equally interesting that none of the major American media have done any meaningful reporting on this issue. By contrast, the Catholic Church (perhaps most notably Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae) has long been warning that contraception, sterilization, and abortion cause the collapse of individual morality, the destruction of families, and the ultimate demise of society as a whole. I put forth that it would be foolish to dismiss the link between Japan's low birthrate and the increasingly high rates of violent crime, depression, and suicide.
Today, demographers are affirming, though only indirectly, that these evils are in fact destroying entire nations and continents. Unfortunately, governments do not acknowledge the root causes of the problem some have coined the "demographic death spiral." This denial could be likened to a society in which lung cancer is running rampant and, though everyone is aware of the disease's existence, no one makes the connection to the three packs of cigarettes a day they're smoking.
Many prefectures and cities have tried just about everything to entice young couples to have children. Substantial cash bonuses, similar to the one my wife and I received, are offered to couples who have more than one child. Other approaches range from seemingly practical to somewhat bizarre. Some local governments, for example, have sponsored dances and "speed dating" parties in an attempt to get young singles together. And in 2006, the Year of the Dog, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged women to "do as dogs do" and have "large litters." (Not surprisingly, that comment probably did not achieve its intended effect.)
Going back as far as the 1920's, when Margaret Sanger travelled to Japan several times to promote the "virtues" of contraception and sterilization, Japan has long embraced the modern notion of "family planning." And if a government drills into the people's heads the idea that children are messy, noisy, expensive, and bad for the environment (and once it has promoted and funded millions of abortions), there is really no way back. One recent poll revealed that a staggering seventy percent of young Japanese single women say they have no intention of getting married, many of them stating the belief that babies are simply "too much trouble."
So what is the antidote to this self-destructive trend? One of the most commonly suggested solutions, as I alluded to earlier, is immigration. But Japanese society is ninety-nine percent ethnically homogenous and (as most anyone who has spent time in Japan can attest) very xenophobic. It probably would not be an exaggeration to say that many Japanese leaders would rather allow their culture to die than to be diluted or assimilated. (It certainly could be argued that Yukio Mishima felt that way.) Of course, the irony in all this is that the Japanese culture, in fact, has been diluted (literally) as it has assimilated itself to a corrupt paradigm of modern Western values. And even if more liberal immigration were permitted, this would only constitute the temporary treatment of a symptom, not a cure for the disease.
It is perhaps equally ironic that the only real solution to the plague of depopulation is also rooted in another, yet altogether different, aspect of Western culture, namely that of Christianty. What Japan really needs to experience is a radical rekindling of the love of God and children. Of course, a natural love for children is not limited to any particular religion. But it is by the light of Christianity that such love can best be understood and nurtured. The Japanese must undo almost a century of anti-natalist propaganda with a massive infusion of the values of family, and an appreciation for the beauty and necessity of children, on every level. For if things remain on present course, Japan may very well find itself as "the land of the setting sun."
Epilogue
During the presentation of my paper at the Japan Symposium in April, I cited materialism and feminism as two of the root causes of Japan's declining birthrate. I was perhaps more disappointed than surprised that the expression of a fundamentally Catholic view, at a Catholic venue, would provoke the generally hostile reaction it received. One of my fellow panelists, Mr. Devon Cahill, expressed utter disbelief at my assertion that feminism could have anything to do with Japan's declining birthrate. But Mr. Cahill's incredulousness exposes a failure to understand that one of the outwardly stated goals of the feminist movement has always been to reduce the average number of children through widespread availability of contraception and state-sanctioned abortion. So the question I must pose to Mr. Cahill and others is, "Are you saying the feminist movement has failed in its endeavors?"
Mr. Cahill also expressed his view that, although Japan's low birthrate may be a regional problem, the issue of world overpopulation is far more urgent and pressing. To this, I replied with my belief that planetary overpopulation is largely a myth. Mr. Cahill seemed almost offended by the notion that anyone claiming to be even halfway intelligent could espouse such a view. It would seem that those in Mr. Cahill's camp have taken the liberty of catapulting a mere theory to the status of obvious and uncontested fact. Though I haven't the luxury of unpacking the myth of world overpopulation in this paper, I would invite the intellectually curious to conduct some research on it. I will say that, in places that do suffer from overpopulation, poverty, and hunger, the solutions lie in the correction of human greed and mismanagement, not in self-extermination by having fewer children.
During the discussion immediately following the presentation of papers, panelist commentator, Mr. Nandor Forgach, put forth that Japan is a modern society that, "unfortunately still has one foot stuck in old traditional ways." This statement was made to support the notion that the feminist movement in Japan really has not yet gone far enough to bring about gender equality. In addition to the need to clarify what is meant by "equality," the problem I have with Mr. Forgach's assertion is that it presumes that anything old or traditional is necessarily bad. I would put forth that Japan needs to regain a sense of itself by a return to the elevation of the family and sanctity of human life. But, lest it seem as if I am pointing an accusatory finger solely at Japan, we here in the U.S. suffer from the very same disease.

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