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February 11, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Babies in Japan — an endangered species

With granddaughter, Waho, on her 100th day

With granddaughter, Waho, on her 100th day


(June 25, 1998)

A friend’s husband, a man born shortly before the end of World War II, once told me that when he was a young man preparing to enter university, he never gave a thought to what he wanted to study and become. He knew Japan needed engineers so he became an engineer.

I think he is a good citizen, someone almost noble in his concern for his country. But I don’t think this kind of concern is shared by women — when it comes to populating a country. Conceiving, bearing, giving birth to and raising a child requires a particular kind of commitment, but Japan’s policymakers don’t seem to understand this.

“Action urged to up birthrate,” read a recent headline. What kind of action, I wondered. What are they actually going to do?

Once again, the country’s politicians and government administrators are in a tizzy, lamenting the country’s declining birthrate. Their concern is not, however, about Japanese couples having their own little bundle of joy to love and cherish (and support) but about the need for a youthful generation to finance the pension system.

Someone must have noticed by now that the vociferous “Let’s go ladies! Let’s have some babies!” approach is not working. Someone must tell whoever is in charge that women don’t take their country’s birthrate into consideration when they decide whether or not they will have a baby, or how many babies they’ll have. No woman is thinking about her offspring as a potential provider of capital for an aging population’s pension when thoughts of maternity enter her head.

What women, and their husbands do consider, however, is the quality of life they can expect, for themselves and their children. Although surveys show that almost half of Japanese couples say they would like to have three children, the majority now opt for two or less — in fact, a record low 1.39.

Many would-be parents see children as a financial burden. Add up the cost of education, health care, child care and the innumerable expenses of just one child from birth to age 20, and that staggering figure makes it clear why more and more couples are having fewer and fewer children.

Some countries realize that the vitality of their societies depends on the support they can provide families. Sweden is a good example of a country where enlightened social policies reflect this realization. The generous social support given to parents is said to be directly accountable for Sweden’s high birthrate, one of the highest in Europe.

Sweden’s social system is light-years ahead of Japan and many other industrialized countries that consider themselves “advanced”. Sweden’s tangible support includes measures that aim at giving maximum flexibility between the care of small children and the career development of both parents. Mothers can work shorter work hours and receive child care, with pay. All fathers are given a 10-day paid leave with the birth of a child.

This brings back memories. And are they ever bittersweet. When my son, our third child, was born here in 1981, my husband came to pick me up at the maternity clinic. He drove me home and left me with our 5-day old infant and 3-year old toddler, at the door of our house.

My husband isn’t a bad guy — he just had to rush to work. He’d already cleaned the house, prepared food for our lunch, chopped wood to heat the bath. Still, nothing would have been more valuable than his help and company for those early days following birth.

Thirty-three years ago, when I first visited Scandinavia, I remember hearing that not only was family allowance support provided in Sweden, but it was soon forthcoming. Rumor had it that cash was brought directly into the delivery room and put on the mother’s bed!

No matter where and how it’s given, it’s a substantial amount. Family allowances which amount to about $15,000 per year, per child (1995 figures) increases from the third child on.

Japan is a country said to be poor in natural resources, but surely people are a ‘natural resource’. While there are endless yearly reports and ongoing task-force meetings abut the plummeting birthrate, it’s almost fascinating to watch absolutely nothing being done about it.

Just think if Japan had oil deposits declining as fast and steadily as the birthrate, there would be more than just warnings of “Danger!” It goes without saying that the government would take positive, aggressive steps to “reverse the trend” — not just talk about it.

“The nation needs to take action to stop the alarming decrease in population, which could seriously affect society …” says one newspaper editorial. Considering that the family is the base of all society, and that no society can be said to exist without this unit, this society might disappear by time “action” is taken.

The Health and Welfare Ministry said in its annual report that it’s imperative to create “a society that encourages a man and woman to dream of living together and to have and raise children.”

This sounds very nice, but simplistic and even immature. Having and raising children has very little to do with dreaming.



Now, many couples simply opt out of having children. A pregnant woman in Japan these days stands out — and if she already has a child, well, it’s something quite remarkable.

Modest child care allowance assistance proposals languish in the Diet (Japan’s parliament), child care facilities are scarce, and maternity leave the minimum. Japanese women most often, still, must make the hard choice between career or family.

Whenever I’m in Scandinavia, I practically stare at all the pregnant women and young couples with children. Fathers pushing strollers or playing with children in the park, is a common sight. While Sweden can now say something like 90% of fathers take paternity leave — the number in Japan is a woefully embarrassing 1%.

It’s no wonder, and no surprise, that pets in Japan outnumber children (this has been a fact since 2003).


© Karen Hill Anton and Crossing Cultures, 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and Crossing Cultures with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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