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THE WORLD | SUNDAY REPORT: JAPAN'S DEMOGRAPHY SHOCK

Baby Bust Has Japan Fearing for Its Future

The population will soon start to shrink, sparking huge social and economic shifts that will transform the nation for better or worse.

June 24, 2001|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — What happens to a prosperous, peaceful society whose women decide en masse they have better things to do than have babies?

Nobody knows. It's never happened. But Japan is about to find out.

This nation's young women are now offered an unprecedented array of personal and professional freedoms, but the joys of children and family life are still bound by traditional constraints. The result of millions of women's individual decisions is a collective baby strike.

For Sakiko Ono, a 34-year-old graphic designer, a child might ruin her long love affair with her husband. For Dr. Mio Masuda, a 31-year-old endocrinologist, a second baby would end any hope for a prestigious career. Piano teacher Sachie Takamori and her husband desperately want a second child, but their daily struggle with careers, commutes and family obligations leaves them barely enough time and money to raise one.

And so the birthrate falls. Within six years, the population of the world's second-largest economy and ninth-most-populous country will begin to shrink.

Even by the government's rosy forecast, Japan will have 14% fewer citizens by 2050. A third of the population will be older than 65. More than 15% will be older than 80. And that assumes that Japanese women will eventually marry and start bearing children.

Many private analysts consider it more realistic that the birthrate will remain low. Barring immigration and assuming that fertility stays where it is, by 2050 the Japanese population would plunge 31%, from the current 127 million to 88 million.

Environmentalists say population decline in an overcrowded, import-dependent nation like Japan will prove a blessing as world population skyrockets from 6.1 billion to an estimated 9.3 billion in 2050.

But economists warn that the baby bust could keep Japan mired in a semi-permanent recession. The soaring ratio of retirees to workers will pose dire challenges to the nation's pension, medical and welfare systems, its labor practices, its bond ratings, even perhaps the viability of its financial system.

For more than a decade, spooked politicians have tried castigating, cajoling and finally bribing women to have babies. But as long as men can't or won't help raise their children and are penalized if they put family ahead of work, their wives say they can't have both careers and children.

Japan is hardly alone in grappling with these brave new social and economic problems. It's on the cutting edge of a phenomenon that will affect most of the leading industrialized nations.

In the United States, fertility rates are expected to hover just below replacement level for the next 50 years, but immigration and a large number of citizens of childbearing age will keep the population growing steadily.

However, according to projections by the United Nations Population Division, by the middle of the century, 39 countries will have populations smaller than they do today. Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Cuba are all expected to lose a quarter or more of their populations by 2050.

In fact, while populations in the least developed nations continue to soar, 64 developed nations now have birthrates lower than the 2.1 children per woman required to keep a population stable.

"Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all around the world," says American demographer Ben Wattenberg. "We are in uncharted territory."

Historically, many populations have experienced temporary drops due to famine, plague and warfare, including, in modern times, the Stalinist purges in Russia and the mass starvation during China's "Great Leap Forward," notes Dr. Kenji Hayashi, a Japanese demographer. To some extent, the baby busts in Russia and Ukraine, which will experience even steeper population declines than Japan, can be explained by geopolitical turmoil, economic disaster and despair.

But never before has a nation like Japan--affluent, peaceful, with the world's longest life expectancy--experienced a sustained population decline, Hayashi says.

And while European nations, notably Italy, Sweden and Spain, are facing similar demographic trends, the twin phenomena of a fast-aging society and an extreme birth dearth are putting a particular strain on tradition-minded Japan.

Unlike Italy, xenophobic Japan is loath to allow immigrants to solve the labor shortages expected to begin in 2020. And unlike Sweden, which makes it financially attractive for single mothers to bear and keep their children, Japanese society is unwilling to tolerate out-of-wedlock births.

Polls find that 84% of Japanese believe that their slumping birthrate and fast-aging population are serious national problems.

In his first speech to parliament, new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promised to end the day-care shortage and expand child-care hours to help mothers keep working and boost Japan's economy.

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