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JAPAN: Wooing Women as Birth Rates Drop

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jan 9 2006 (IPS) - Gender equality has been a distant dream in Japan but a drastic national population decline is forcing the government to take steps to help women – if only to encourage them to have more children.

”The yellow signal has started flickering,” said health minister Jiro Kawasaki, late December, referring to the low birth rate and the consequent threat to the national economy.

The government now acknowledges that the consequences of declining birth rates -1.29 per woman- can be addressed partly by increasing jobs for women and expanding the retirement age to 70 years from the current 65 years.

But women remain cautious. ‘’It is great to hear the government saying women must be supported to increase the population. But there is a lot more to do before women really decide Japan has the right environment to have children,” says Yuko Ashino, a reproduction expert and former head of the Japan Family Planning Institute.

She says Japanese women are not having children because they are anxious and worried about the future and are disappointed that the government does not do more.

Japan spends less than two percent of its GDP on support for child- rearing compared, for example, to Britain that has a figure of more than 2.5 percent.

”Women need an environment where they can start a family and keep working without facing a heavy financial burden. They also do not want to shoulder the social responsibility of taking care of the children. But the government has not told us yet how exactly women can ease these burdens,” she explained.

Indeed, experts point out, declining birth rates have long been a nagging problem for the government that has tried various programmes during the past decade and failed.

For example, the health ministry advocated two ‘Angel Plans’ where government budgets expanded the number of nurseries for working mothers during the nineties to more than 24,000 across the country.

But to no avail. Japan’s current population of 128 million is expected to drop to 100 million in 2050 if nothing in a business as usual scenario.

Today, according to reports released by the National Institute of Population and Social Security last month, Japan’s birth rate is declining extremely fast, compared to that in the United States and Europe and identified young people as not having children because they cannot afford to get married or because of heavy education costs.

Data released by the institute indicate that almost 70 percent of women raising children want more financial support for education. The number of couples who got married in 2005 was 713,000- the fourth year in decline.

Sumiko Shimizu, former legislator and now member of a working panel of women advocating for gender equality, identifies the latest figures to a gap between expectations by the government and changes in women’s lifestyles which she says is at the core of Japan’s population decrease.

“Younger women want to work and enjoy their independent lifestyles. Marriage in Japan carries heavy social responsibilities for women which is why they delay tying the knot,” she said.

Akiko Yahagi, 30, can vouch for that. Yahagi graduated in international relations in Japan, then spent three years in the United States studying design.

Yahagi works in a foreign bank and says marriage is but a distant dream. ‘’I am too busy enjoying my work to start a family. Perhaps when I am forty I will consider taking on the responsibility,” she explained.

Shimzu also blames increased global competition faced by Japanese companies that want to reduce personnel costs by hiring women as part- timers. Half the working population is female but more than 60 percent of that number is employed as part-timers.

”The trend among private companies is to hire women as part-timers to lessen personnel costs such as paying bonuses or paid vacation. I doubt this will change as Japan faces increased competition in the global market,” she says.

Katsuya Saito, official in charge of a new health ministry department called Support for Child Rearing, says the central government plans to take several landmark steps to change the situation.

Plans include doubling current child allowances, from April this year, to 100 US dollars per month for couples having their third child. New regulations are also being readied to nudge companies to decrease working hours for both men and women so they can share the family workload.

“The government now acknowledges that the key to higher birth rates is to make it easy for women to work and have a family. Our new plans will help to change the situation,” he said.

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