Japan’s Mating Culture Extends Baby Drought

The world population will rise to slightly over 9 billion people within the next century. Yet Japan and many European countries face possibly catastrophic population declines. Strikingly low birthrates don’t only threaten economic growth and domestic familial dynamics, but could provoke "shifts in the political weights of countries in the international arena." Concern is so great among Japanese policy-makers that the government is sponsoring a number of largely ineffectual dating programs to prevent the Japanese from becoming the first race “to die out because it is too shy to reproduce.” Many experts suggest that the low birthrates are merely a symptom of broader cultural transitions in many countries, including, for instance, the advent of dating in Japan and the arrival of feminism in Italy. Given time, they say, people will adjust and birthrates may once again rise. The danger, however, is that people’s perception of the ‘ideal family’ may change in the meanwhile, making large families less desirable. – YaleGlobal

Japan's Mating Culture Extends Baby Drought

David Turner
Tuesday, December 9, 2003

When governments start running dating programmes, you know that policymakers are worried about low birth rates.

Since the late 1990s Japanese prefectures have been organising hiking trips and cruises for single people. Japan's birth rate, which has fallen to an average of 1.3 children per woman, is one of the lowest in the developed world .

Critics say fertility is no business of politicians. There is still a taboo against "letting the government into your bedroom", concedes one expert.

So far, the results of the Wedding March dating programme suggest it has not provided the necessary romantic inspiration. One scheme in Shimane prefecture in western Japan cost $150,000 during three years, but only produced seven marriages and four babies.

Many rich countries are beginning to wonder whether they can afford squeamishness about the subject.

United Nations projections released yesterday suggest that the world's population will rise by 3bn during the next century, to slightly more than 9bn. But the population of Europe is forecast to fall from 728m now to 538m in 2100, and Japan's population is expected to drop from 127m to 90m during the same period.

A recent report on low fertility from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development explains in occasionally apocalyptic tones why countries are starting to worry.

For rich countries, a low birth rate means lower economic growth, which transforms politics by provoking "shifts in the political weights of countries in the international arena". There are domestic implications, too. Increasing numbers of people may have "no, or few, immediate family ties", a greater strain on public services.

The OECD report hints the result could be the replacement of the class war of the 20th century with age war, as "larger and healthier groups" of older people at the top of organisations "resist the progression and career enhancement of younger people".

The conventional explanation for the baby drought is a combination of economic growth and more women in the labour force. As women's earning opportunities increase, the decision to have children becomes a greater sacrifice.

But that explanation no longer seems to fit the facts.

While tiny Iceland's birth rate is the highest of any OECD European country bar Turkey, so too is its female employment rate. And although Italy's female employment rate is one of the lowest in the OECD it also has one of the lowest rates of reproduction.

Ingólfur Gislason of Iceland's gender equalities council says its high rate of female employment removes a barrier. "Even if you leave the labour market for a few years when your child is born, you can be pretty sure that you'll be able to return."

Conversely, low employment can make the young reluctant to breed. Italy has an exceptionally high proportion of people in their mid- to late-20s who live with their parents, pushing up the average age at which they start reproducing.

Getting your economy back on track is not enough to correct this, say some experts, who believe it is no coincidence that some of the countries with the lowest birth rates are undergoing painful cultural transitions.

The average Italian man spends only 1hr 48min a day on childcare and other unpaid work - compared with 6hr and 24min for a woman in full-time paid work. Italian women who choose to have a child will have to shoulder most of the drudgery - and may think twice about having children.

In Japan, the cultural transition is even more marked. In 1955 two-thirds of couples met through arranged marriages. Now fewer than 10 per cent do, according to Naohiro Ogawa, demographer and economist at Tokyo's Nihon University: "Dating is fairly new to the culture." Observers wonder, only half in jest, whether the Japanese race will be the first to die out because it is too shy to reproduce.

If fertility is low because cultures are in transition, then extremely low birth rates are, arguably, temporary. In some countries where feminism arrived earlier than in Italy, the balance of work between men and women has become more equal.

But there is an alternative, more worrying, outcome: a vicious circle where low fertility begets low fertility. Recent surveys show the average Japanese woman would still like more than two children. But this might change as low fertility becomes the norm. "What could happen is that the ideal family size starts to decline," says Prof Ogawa.

He agrees that the mating culture is "in transition". The future might bring higher fertility to Japan, he says. "But I wouldn't be surprised if total fertility falls close to one child or lower."

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003.