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少子化

Shôshika, literally "few-children-ization," is a term the Japanese have come up with to describe the severe decline in their birth rate and the many social problems associated with said decline.

The Problem

Nearly all nations, after they make the transition from "underdeveloped" to "developed" status, undergo some sort of birth rate decline, as decreasing infant mortality, increasing access to health care and birth control, and a decreasing reliance on subsistence agriculture allow people to have less children. According to the World Health Organization the replacement birth rate is 2.08 children per woman, meaning that to maintain the population at a steady level, each woman must bear an average of 2.08 children during her lifetime. Nearly all "developed" nations, including the United States, Australia, Canada, and most of Europe have birth rates significantly below 2.08.

Most nations at least partially offset declining birth rates with immigration from nations with high birth rates. Japan however, heavily restricts immigration, such that only about two thirds of one percent of the people living in Japan today could be considered immigrants - an astonishing low figure. But even setting aside the question of immigration, Japan's birth rate is catastrophically low. In 1999, the Japanese government had predicted that the birth rate would bottom out at 1.36 in 2004, and then begin to slowly rebound, but when the 2004 birth rate was announced in June of 2005, it turned out to have been a ridiculously miniscule 1.289, and even worse, the latest projections predict that the birth rate will fall even lower to 1.24, easily one of the lowest birth rates for such a large group of people in human history.

The Effects

According to the latest projections, Japan's population will actually begin shrinking sometime in 2006. By 2050, it will have declined from 134 million people today to about 100 million people, and by 2100, there will only be about 60 million Japanese left. This process is expected to cause a devastating chain reaction of negative effects on the Japanese society and economy.

As "shoshika" continues, it will become even harder for Japan to fight its way out of the economic slump it has been suffering through for the last 15 years. Japan's disciplined, highly educated workforce has been one of the most significant engines in its rise to economic superpower status, but as the number of working-age people declines and the labor market contracts, Japanese companies will find it almost impossible to hire the new workers needed to sustain economic growth. This problem will most likely be partially offset by the increasing inflow of women into the workforce, but this process can only help to a limited extent and will soon run its course. Eventually, most Japanese companies will have to relocate almost entirely overseas, where they can secure the cheap workforce needed to remain competitive in the global market. Many other companies will be forced to sell out, contract, or even close down.

But perhaps an even more damaging effect of shoshika will be the problem it will create for supporting the elderly. Japan already has one of the world's most aged societies, with 19.5 percent of the population over age 65 in 2005. By 2050, according to the latest projections, this figure is expected to reach a staggering 35 percent of the population. The dramatic shrinking of the working tax-base will cause a number of social problems as the government is forced to cut back on social services. The Japanese government is already moving to raise the national consumption tax, cut back on pension benefits, and rein in wasteful spending, but these measures are the proverbial drop in the bucket. Much larger tax increases and very likely a raising of the retirement age are certainly on the horizon.

In edition to the economic crunch and the problem of the aged, shoshika is expected to contribute to a host of other social changes. Colleges and universities are already bracing for 2007, when the number of applicants will fall below the number of open spots, and in later years some schools will probably have to close down for lack of students. A host of other industries that serve children, youths, and young adults are similarly bracing for a decline in business.

The Causes

The causes of shoshika are numerous and complex, but changing gender roles continue to be seen as a primary cause. Japan is in the process of transitioning from a society where nearly all women are full-time housewives to a society where most women work. Many women wish to pursue careers, but Japanese society still more often than not holds women completely responsible for childcare, cooking, and housework, even if they also work full-time. Not surprisingly, many women elect to put off having children until later in life, or even forgo children completely. Moreover, many Japanese men force their wives to stop working upon marriage so that they can have warm meals waiting when the come home, leading many women to put of marriage as well in order to preserve their careers.

But even as Japanese men are slowly becoming more open minded about changing gender roles, childcare infrastructure in Japan is still woefully underdeveloped. Maternity leave systems are unimaginative and continue to unfairly penalize career advancement at many companies, daycare centers are few and far between, and even babysitting is difficult to find and prohibitively expensive due to an arcane government licensing system.

A variety of other societal factors contribute to the advance of shoshika, including the lack of social stigma associated with birth control and abortion found in other nations and the prohibitive costs associated with giving children a chance to succeed in the Japanese education system.

The Proposed Solutions

In Japan the term "shoshika" is almost always paired with the word mondai, which means "problem," as "shoshika mondai" or "few children problem." Calling something a "problem" implies that it is a bad thing and needs to be "fixed," but I suppose that whether shoshika is really a problem or not depends on the eye of the beholder. Shoshika is really only a problem in a world where national success is judged by economic might, which is considered to derive from a constantly growing GDP. We happen to live in such a world, so beholders who view shoshika as something other than a problem are admittedly few in number, but the world is certainly not going to end for Japan because of shoshika. A shrinking population is not doom for a nation. Social problems can be addressed, national finances can be adjusted, and Japan could possibly go the way of a Denmark or a Finland - small but wealthy countries content to confine their mark on the world to cheese or cell phones.

But since nearly all Japanese consider shoshika to be a problem of gargantuan proportions, what kind of solutions is Japan pursuing? Essentially, the Japanese are divided into two camps. Conservatives place the blame on Japanese women, and lament that if only Japanese women would return to more traditional roles as "good wives and wise mothers" and stop being so "selfish" and "hedonistic," the would be at home churning out babies like the good old days of yore. These people sponsor propaganda telling women to have more children and get married sooner, and oppose initiatives to equalize the gender ratios in the workforce.

Liberals, on the other hand, place the blame on Japanese men and Japanese society for oppressing Japanese women and forcing them to choose between a career and having children. Such an either-or choice is not necessary, they argue, and they push for more maternity leave and workplace equality, better and more daycare, and an expanded role for men in the rearing of children.

The Japanese government has taken a mixed approach, calling for women to have more children and attempting to get people married earlier through such efforts as tax breaks for additional children and government-sponsored matchmaking programs, but also pumping money into building daycare centers and passing workplace equality legislation.

The Dark, Awful Truth

The fact remains however, that even if the Japanese birthrate were to suddenly leap up to 3 or 4 lifetime births per woman, the Japanese population would still begin declining in 2006 and would continue declining for several years before rebounding. Demographic changes occur over the longue durée and take generations to reverse. There are already too few women of childbearing age to stop shoshika, or even slow it down much. In other words, having more children won't really solve anything.

In truth, the only real solution to the "problem" of shoshika is for Japan to liberalize its immigration policies. Naturally, Japanese politicians and public figures are reluctant to even mention immigration as a solution, as the Japanese are intensely proud of their supposedly "homogeneous" culture and deeply suspicious of the changes their culture would undergo in the event of immigration on a scale more equivalent to other first world nations.

While it is certainly true that increased immigration would change Japanese society and culture, it is equally true that cultures are changing all the time, with or without immigration. The deep fears Japanese hold regarding cultural change or dilution almost certainly stem from a misconception of Japanese culture as ancient, timeless, and unchanging, when a glance at Japanese history in fact shows that almost none of the most prized and essentialized Japanese cultural traits and tropes is older than a century or two, and even within this time period all have undergone numerous transformations and evolutions.

It seems clear, to this writer at least, that Japan only has two choices: population decline and economic contraction, or else immigration and cultural transformation.


Sources:

Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. "Jinkou Mondai Kankei." www.ipss.go.jp
Wikipedia. "Shoushika." ja.wikipedia.org
All About. "Shoushika ga tomaranai!" http://allabout.co.jp/children/childbirth/closeup/CU20050602B/
NHK News 10. June 10, 2005
CIA World Factbook - Japan. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ja.html

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