Tokyo, Japan – Chika Hashimoto, 23, who just graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, is not opposed to having a family in the future, but she also doesn’t take the chance.
“It was definitely not my first choice,” she told Al Jazeera. “Finishing your career and enjoying your freedom is far more important than getting married and having children.”
Hashimoto cites economic concerns as the main reason she and many other young Japanese women are re-evaluating a future centered on family life. “Raising a child really costs a lot of money,” she said. “It’s not easy for Japanese women to balance career and family because we will have to choose between them.”
Japan is facing one of the world’s biggest demographic crises, with annual births falling below 800,000 for the first time in 2022.
The current birth rate of 1.34 is much lower than the 2.07 needed to keep the population stable, meaning Japan’s population could fall from 125 million to 88 million by 2065.
Japan’s falling birth rate was in the spotlight when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used unusually strict language in a recent speech to parliament. “Japan is facing with whether we can continue to function as a society,” he said in his 45-minute speech, adding that it was “now or never moment” to address the nation’s population decline.
Japan is the third most expensive country to raise a child, after China and Korea, despite the notoriously stagnant wages. The average annual salary, which has barely increased since the late 1990s, is around $39,000, compared with the OECD average of almost $50,000.
Furthermore, Japanese women will earn 21.1 percent less than men in 2021, nearly double the average wage gap in advanced economies.
Kishida’s two-pronged solution to Japan’s declining birth rate is to actively encourage couples to get married while at the same time encouraging them with policies that facilitate a “preferred socioeconomic economy”. child first”. Among Kishida’s plans, which will be outlined in more detail over the next few months, he has pledged to double spending on children through increased childcare subsidies and childcare initiatives. care after school.
‘Leaded by old men’
Maki Kitahara, 37, tried to have a baby with her ex-husband a few years ago.
“But to be honest, I was afraid that I would lose my career,” she told Al Jazeera. “I often hear male managers talk about how women getting married and pregnant mess up HR planning, including skills development, job rotation, and promotion. This is where my fear comes from.”
Driven by career ambitions and a desire to explore the world, Kitahara never really fit into society’s traditional Japanese view of the wife and mother. This partly led to her divorce and moving to live permanently in Dubai, where she remotely runs a leadership training course for Japanese women through her Fukuoka-based company, Global Synergy Education Consulting. Group.
Kitahara believes that the way the social structure and division of labor is expected in a Japanese household – men are the breadwinners, women are housewives – do not support working-age women. Birth.
“I think it’s strange that Japan’s current political strategy to increase the birth rate is led by older men who delegate childcare to their wives,” she said. . “We need more women in politics and business at that table so we can sit down and talk and plan for our future.”
The correlation between marriage and childbearing is particularly pronounced in Japan, where the rate of children born outside marriage is only 2% annually, compared with an average of about 40% elsewhere in the world. development world.
“When a single woman in Japan becomes pregnant, it seems that she has only two options: abortion or entry. [unwillingly] get married,” wrote scholar Kozue Kojima in 2013. “The choice to have children out of wedlock is rarely seen as an option.”
In tandem with growing educational opportunities and career ambitions – and in a similar situation in other advanced economies – Japanese women who marry and have children are doing this later in life. , which usually means they are unlikely to have a larger baby. families.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average age of mothers giving birth to their first child has risen to 30.9 in 2021, the highest level since records began in 1950.
Yuko Kawanishi, a professor of sociology at Tokyo’s Lakeland University, believes that the employment system – broadly defined by seiki (full-time workers) and hiseiki (contract workers) – is the main cause of to Japan’s demographic decline. The number of mothers with children entering the labor force is on the rise, reaching 76% in 2021, 20 percentage points higher than in 2004. However, only 30% of all mothers have permanent employment.
“This is a very serious macroeconomic problem because many young women are worried about falling into [non-permanent employment],” she told Al Jazeera. “There is a serious disparity in this country, between seiki and hiseiki jobs, in terms of stability, benefits and wages… there is a real uncertainty about the future.”
While Kawanishi sympathizes with concerns about Japan’s demographic future, she also believes that stronger plans are needed to alleviate the problem.
“Population size is fundamental when it comes to any social issue,” she said. “There are things we can do, but we still haven’t found a way to work. I don’t think the policy that Japan has advocated for the past few weeks is drastic enough to make an impact.”
Hashimoto agrees that the government’s solution – mainly financial – is unreasonable.
“[It] could fix the problem,” she said, “but a deeper structure is still needed to help improve childcare subsidies.”