Cultural Anthropology

Reasons for Japans Low Birth Rate and Aging Population

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Japan's low birth rate and aging population is a decades old problem that started when the population achieved average life expectancy that is the longest in the world. In Japan, the life expectancy is in the eighties for both men (80 years) and women (86 years). There are estimated to be 40,000 Japanese who are over 100 years old, according to The Economist. 

On the other side of the population equation, Japan's birth rate is only 1.4 children per woman, which is the lowest birthrate in the world. Japan enjoyed much population growth during the 70 years that led up to the 1950s. Then, Japan's birth rate went into a rapid decline. By the 1980s, the birthrate was only 1.5 children per woman. A one child per family policy was implemented in Japan, but as a voluntary policy.

The ominous warnings came with the 2010 Census, which showed the first true drop in the population of Japan. The number of deaths exceed the number of births. It is estimated that the current decline in working age population could not be corrected in 20 years, even if young Japanese men and women started having more children. has a summary of marriage, employment and family in Japan.

Perhaps a culture of compliance with authority and adherence to tradition is the culprit that has caused Japan's declining birth rates. As the nation modernized and industrialized, there was conflicting and stubborn draw of the traditional social and official ways. Children are not to be born out of wedlock and very expensive weddings are the only acceptable way to get married. Only two percent of Japanese children are born out of wedlock. At an average cost of $40,000, traditional Japanese weddings are extravagances.

Women's inequality is another important childbearing issue, especially for Japanese women who work for private businesses. Private businesses stubbornly cling to policies of expecting married women to leave their jobs, to accept comparatively poor benefits, and to not return to work. Many women wind up in low paying and insufficient work after having children. The Japanese Civil Service has a better track record and provides decent maternity and return to work benefits. As a result, 80 percent of  Japanese women civil servants go back to work.

This combination of cultural, business and traditional burdens seems guaranteed to have worked against any government incentives that were designed to encourage more marriages and children. 

Now, Japanese women are either waiting longer to marry and have children, or they are giving up on the idea of ever having children. Of all the Japanese women in the so called "peak" child bearing years that range from age 25 to 30, six out of ten have never married. In the past 30 years, the number of unmarried men in the 30 to 34 age group has tripled. Still, Japanese women do not show any signs of backing a feminist or ideological movement on the lines of the 1970s American feminist movement.

For the Japanese men, sociologist Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University made up the derogatory term "parasite singles" to describe young men of peak marrying age (20-34). These men still live with their parents for low rent and for free lives that do not require marriage and having children. Young women end up with a shortage of men who are capable of supporting them and any children that the couple might have.

One explanation for the shortage of eligible young men who have taken on the single lifestyle might be that they saw their fathers dedicate their lives more to work than to personal life or family, only to be turned out by their wives after retirement. Also, as they watched their fathers become sandwiched between caring for their elderly parents and their own children at the same time, the young men seem to be trying to buck a tradition and destiny that many avoid if they can. 

In other words, there is a rising disinterest in Japan's traditions and restrictions. This is leading to a growing generation of somewhat depressed young citizens who may still want to have children, but not in a society that works against providing appropriate social structures that lead to a more fair, happy and sensible modern and industrial life.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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