Tokyo, Japan – Chika Hashimoto, a 23-year-old who recently graduated from Tokyo’s Temple University, isn’t averse to having a family in the future, but she’s not jumping at the chance either.
“It’s definitely not my first choice,” she told Al Jazeera. “Fulfilling my career and enjoying my freedom is far more important than getting married and having children.”
Hashimoto cites economic concerns as the main reason why she and many other young Japanese women are rethinking a future centered around family life. “Raising a child really costs a lot of money,” she said. “It is not easy for Japanese women to balance having a career and raising a family because we have to choose between them.”
Japan is facing one of the world’s biggest demographic crises, with the number of annual births falling below 800,000 for the first time in 2022.
The current birth rate of 1.34 is well below 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 declining birth rate came into focus when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used uncharacteristically stern language in a recent speech to parliament. “Japan is at the edge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” he said in the 45-minute speech, adding that it was a “now or never moment” to address the nation’s population decline.
Japan is the third most expensive country to raise a child, behind only China and South Korea, despite notoriously stagnant wages. Average annual wages, which have barely increased since the late 1990s, are around $39,000, compared to an OECD average of almost $50,000.
Also, Japanese women earned 21.1 percent less than their male counterparts in 2021, nearly double the average wage gap in developed economies.
Kishida’s two-pronged solution to Japan’s declining birth rate is to actively encourage couples to start families while incentivizing them with policies that will facilitate a “child-first social economy.” Among Kishida’s plans, which will be outlined in more detail over the next few months, he has promised to double childhood spending through increased childcare allowances and after-school measures.
‘led by old men’
Maki Kitahara (37) tried to have children with her now ex-husband several years ago.
“But to be honest, I feared I would lose my career,” she told Al Jazeera. “I often heard male managers talking about marriage and pregnancy for women destroying the HR plan, which included skills development, job rotation and promotion. That’s where my fear came from.”
Driven by career ambitions and a desire to explore the world, Kitahara never really conformed to society’s view of the traditional Japanese wife and mother. This partly led to her divorce and a permanent move to Dubai, where she externally runs a leadership training course for Japanese women through her Fukuoka-based company, Global Synergy Education Consulting Group.
Kitahara believes that the way society is structured and the expected division of labor in a Japanese household – man as breadwinner, woman as housewife – does not support working women of childbearing age.
“I find it strange that the current Japanese political strategy to increase birth rates was led by old men delegating child care to their wives,” she said. “We need more women in politics and business to have a seat at that table so we can sit together to talk about and plan our future.”
The relationship between marriage and birth rates is particularly pronounced in Japan, where the percentage of children born out of wedlock is only 2 percent annually, compared with an average of about 40 percent elsewhere in the developed world.
“When a single woman in Japan becomes pregnant, she seems to have only two choices: to have an abortion or to (reluctantly) enter into marriage,” wrote academic Kozue Kojima in 2013. “Choosing to have an illegitimate child becomes rare viewed as an alternative.”
As educational opportunities and career aspirations increase – and echoing the situation in other advanced economies – Japanese women who marry and have children do so later in life, which usually means they are unlikely to have larger families.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average age of mothers who gave birth to their first child rose to 30.9 in 2021, the highest since records began in 1950.
Yuko Kawanishi, a sociology professor at Lakeland University in Tokyo, believes the employment system – broadly defined by seiki (full-time workers) and hiseiki (contract workers) – is a major contributor to Japan’s demographic decline. The number of mothers with children in the workforce is increasing, reaching 76 per cent in 2021, 20 percentage points higher than in 2004. Yet only 30 per cent of all mothers are permanently employed.
“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 difference in this country, between seiki and hiseiki work, in terms of stability and benefits and pay… there is real uncertainty about the future.”
While Kawanishi is sympathetic to concerns over Japan’s demographic future, she also believes that more robust plans are needed to alleviate the problem.
“Population size is so fundamental when you talk about some of society’s problems,” she said. “There are things we can do, but we have yet to find any effective ways. I don’t think the policies Japan has advanced in recent weeks are drastic enough to have an impact.”
Hashimoto agrees that the government’s solution – primarily financial – is poorly thought out.
“(It) can solve the problem,” she said, “but there still needs to be a deeper structural system to help improve childcare benefits.”