[ Nippon Keidanren ] [ Journal ]
Messages from "Economic Trend", August 2005

Japan's Falling Birthrate: Let's Not Be Complacent

Takahide Sakurai
Vice Chairmen of the Board of Councillors, Nippon Keidanren
Advisor, The Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company

We are finally seeing a lively discussion here in Japan about the plunging birthrate and what to do about it. At the same time, however, some people argue that this low fertility is nothing to worry about. The main argument is as follows: A country's economic growth rate is the sum of the growth rate of its population and the rate of increase in its productivity. So even if the population shrinks, we can keep the economy growing at a good pace as long as we keep steadily increasing our productivity.

The hidden assumption here is that the decline in the population will eventually halt. Those in the "don't worry" camp sometimes note that Japan had a spell of population decline in the past, during the Edo period (1603-1868), and that the common people of those times led quite pleasant lives. But this blithe observation can only be made now that the population is much larger, having exploded in the period starting with the Meiji era (1868-1912).

From the late nineteenth century on, the Japanese government actively promoted population growth. But after World War II, when the people were facing starvation, the authorities shifted to restraining population growth by encouraging birth control. If the government had paid closer attention to demographic trends, it would have abandoned its population restraining policy sooner and would have been quicker to switch back to a growth-promoting approach.

Population policy is always in need of timely adjustment, whether major or minor. And now we need a major change of policy direction, particularly with respect to the family. For many decades we have taken the "modern family," consisting of a married couple and their children, as the only proper form of family unit. We have averted our gaze from unmarried couples, and continued to look at divorce as an aberration, even though it has become quite common. Despite this conservatism the diversification of people's family arrangements shows no sign of abating.

Professor Shigeru Maruyama of Kanagawa University has come out with an interesting book about changes in the family system ("Kazoku no metaphor", Waseda University Press). In it he suggests that, as democratic thinking filters into the Japanese psyche, carrying with it the ideas of personal liberty and equality, it may only be natural that people run away from the so-called modern family, with its patriarchic nature. After all, this particular paradigm of family was dominant in Japanese society for no more than fifty years or so, from around 1920 through the 1970s.

The government should give up on the idea of creating a picture of the "ideal" family and trying to get everybody to conform to it. Professor Maruyama convincingly argues that the authorities should shift to a stance of accepting the diversity of people's lifestyle choices and adjusting its policy mix accordingly. I strongly hope that the blue-ribbon panels like the Council for Gender Equality and the Council on Measures for Society with Decreasing Birthrate will come up with strategic concepts for flexible measures to respond to the actual transformation of the Japanese family - the home base of childbearing.

Home Page in English