Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the press reaction to a research group’s finding that a good many local governments may actually vanish by mid-century due to loss of population, specifically young females. The government has been talking about the low birthrate issue for at least two decades and hasn’t really done anything, but it’s perfectly right to wonder what they could possibly do about it anyway that wouldn’t interfere in some way with people’s lives. The choice to not have a child is, for better or worse, a common hallmark of developed countries. Before marriage became more open and birth control more available, having a child wasn’t thought to involve a “choice.” It was what happened to any woman who got married and to quite a few who didn’t.
When the cabinet-affiliated panel said that it needed to come up with a target birthrate before it could make recommendations, media eyebrows rose in unison because the comment smacked of social engineering. It was a year ago that the government’s plan to distribute handbooks to young women that would provide them with information about pregnancy was blasted by women’s groups as being narrow-minded and discriminatory, since the measure implied that the low birthrate was the fault of the nation’s females and thus they had to “solve” it. The proposal was quickly withdrawn. Similarly, after the panel made its remarks about targets, trade minister Akira Amari told reporters in what Asahi Shimbun described as carefully chosen words that the government is not forcing people to have children. He clarified that it is the government’s role to create an environment in which people would want to have children, though even that last phrase is perhaps putting words into his mouth. What he really said was something along the lines of an environment that would allow people to “demonstrate their will.”
This sort of tippy-toeing through the matter only goes to show that the government doesn’t really understand human nature. Though it’s obvious that people allowed to exercise their free will with regards to procreation will likely have fewer children on the whole, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to have any at all. In fact, most people want to get married and have children, with two being the optimum number, according to one government study. And since the government has said that the optimum number for maintaining the present population level is 2.07, then all the government has to do is make it possible for people to feel they can have children; i.e., that they can afford it.
But first these people have to get married, and that’s a bigger obstacle than it sounds, as proven by statistics that show both men and women are marrying at later ages. The problem with the marriage model in Japan is that for many years it was an engineered arrangement, as shown by the statistic that 95 percent of boomers are married, and most met their spouses at work. In those days, men got permanent employment at a company that also hired women as clerical help but mainly to provide spouses for those men, because those men couldn’t be expected to find mates on their own outside of work, to which they were expected to dedicate their lives. That employment model has become obsolete, but men still have difficulty finding mates outside of work, and now the government has finally come around to the idea of women working full-time in order to help support the economy. It doesn’t matter if, as so many media outlets claim, women would rather be full-time housewives. Men’s salaries and benefits no longer support that kind of family structure. So if the government really thinks it has an obligation to do something that will increase the birthrate, first it has to abandon its rigid concept of courtship and marriage.