EDITORIAL: Japan's shrinking population forces us to reconsider how we live
Japan's projected population decline conjures up an image of a ball rolling down a steep slope.
According to estimates by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the nation's population will shrink to two-thirds of the current level in the next half-century, and then to one-third 100 years from now.
Three panels of experts have issued reports on how to put the brakes on the decline.
All the reports concur that there are obstacles preventing people who want to marry and have children from doing so, and that these obstacles must be removed.
The reports also offer similar solutions, which boil down to expanding support for parents and changing the ways of working.
The Japan Policy Council, a private research foundation that issued one of the three reports, caught the public's attention by pointing out the possibility of about half of the nation's current rural municipalities ceasing to exist if they keep losing their populations to the big cities. But aside from the JPC's dire warning, the three reports offer no new practical solutions.
This was only to be expected, as what needs to be done is already fairly clear. But the point is whether society and the political community will be receptive to the proposed solutions and follow through.
CHANGING REALITY OF FAMILIES
What are the problems?
Our society is solidly established on the traditional concept of the family, which is that the husband is the sole breadwinner and the wife is a full-time homemaker. But this is no longer the reality today, while the social systems, practices and people's mind-sets are still based on the traditional concept.
The situation in Japan is conspicuously different from those in other leading industrialized countries.
Despite the growing number of households where both spouses work, policy support for child-rearing families is still far from adequate.
Long working hours are still routine, partly because the sole breadwinner has always been expected to put in overtime and never complain about transfers. So long as this mind-set remains, husbands will find it difficult to help with household chores and child-rearing. Women who want to work full-time jobs are forced to work long hours just like the men, and tend to put off marrying and starting a family.
Wage levels differ greatly by how one works. In the past, part-time work was only for married women and students, whose wages were kept low on the premise that they could depend financially on their husbands or fathers. But there is a growing number of adult men nowadays who are earning low wages as part-time workers. The current trend for women to remain single or marry late will only accelerate if they keep waiting for men who will meet all their financial needs.
PROBLEMS WITH 'JAPAN MODEL'
If that is the case, some people argue, then we should revive the traditional concept of family.
But that is a tall order. The number of households that can survive on the husband's income alone is on the decrease, and in this age of unstable employment, it is too risky to rely on just one breadwinner. Housework is done differently today from the past, too. Families change along with changes in their circumstances.
We already know that the changes cannot be stopped.
When the government declared "the first year of the welfare society" in 1973, the oil crisis that occurred that year aggravated the nation's fiscal problems. This gave rise to the concept of the "Japanese-style welfare society." The argument then was that Europe's generous welfare handouts took away people's incentive to work, whereas the Japanese spirit of self-help and reliance on one's family, not on government handouts, was truly a virtue.
The Liberal Democratic Party regime of the time took advantage of this argument to curb welfare spending and proceeded to reward households with wives who stayed at home or worked only very little to shoulder burdens of caring for children and elderly parents. Specifically, the government created a system whereby women, who are married to full-time company employees and earn less than a certain level of income themselves, are qualified for old-age pensions of their own without having to pay premiums.
But even this system did not stop the number of dual-income households from growing. And ironically, although it was designed to benefit low-income married women, the system had the effect of encouraging part-time workers to keep their wage levels low. This became one of the causes of the significant wage gaps that exist today. The Abe administration is currently trying to review this "Japan-style" setup by encouraging women's "active participation" in society.
Outside Japan, conspicuous drops in birthrates can be found in countries such as Italy and Spain where people rely on their families for the help they need. It is only natural that when families become overburdened, people hesitate to have children.
SUPPORTING THE NEXT GENERATION
The burden on families will grow even further in the days ahead. In the past, there were multiple working-age people financially supporting one senior citizen under the welfare system. But the nation is fast transforming into a "piggyback" society where there will be only one working-age citizen supporting a senior citizen.
Will the working-age people be able to bear their tax and insurance premium burdens? Will more people be forced to give up work or motherhood in order to care for their elderly parents or relatives? Something must be done to protect both the younger and older generations from collapse.
For one, it is vital to ensure that people will be able to function to their full capacity.
This calls for a system that will allow people to work flexibly while caring for their children or elderly family members.
In the Netherlands, workers are entitled to demand shorter or longer working hours according to their needs, and employers are forbidden to unfavorably treat workers because of shorter working hours. As a result, the employment rate and birthrate have gone up.
Secondly, it is necessary to provide support to the younger generation that supports the elderly population.
The three reports from the panels of experts propose that the nation's social security system, which is currently weighted heavily in favor of the elderly, should be revised to take the needs of the younger generation into consideration. Seniors in difficult financial circumstances obviously need help, but the needs of the younger generation cannot be ignored any longer.
The report by the JPC went one step further. Noting that the terminally ill who are no longer able to eat on their own are often fed from a tube, the report urged earnest discussion of issues related to terminal care to explore desirable forms of end-of-life treatment.
We are born, and we will all eventually die someday.
The nation's shrinking population forces us to face life squarely and reconsider how we live. And we cannot move forward unless the entire society engages in discussion.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 26