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How feminism could save Japan from demographic doom

Japanese women and children.
Japanese women and children.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Japan isn't having enough babies and it is a national crisis. The nation's fertility rate — the average number of children born per woman of child-bearing age — hit 1.42 in 2013, a 16-year high. Yet even that is still well below 2.1, the fertility rate Japan would need to stave off long-run population decline. Without enough new children, the population gets older, the economy and welfare state get weaker, and the entire Japanese social model becomes less sustainable.

There are a number of reasons for the crisis, but one of the most important may be institutionalized sexism in the labor market and in parenting duties. Japan, it turns out, is a particularly tough place to be a working woman, and an even tougher place to be a working mother. Recent research suggests that improving gender equality in the workplace might be the key to solving the birth rate crisis, but it would require huge cultural shifts for a country that has long resisted such changes.

Japan's economy punishes working women

japan working mom (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

A Japanese mother picks up her child from childcare after work. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

A core issue driving Japan's fertility crisis is that Japanese women really want to work, but the uniquely heavy demands of Japanese office cultures make it virtually impossible for a female employee to both advance at work and raise a family. Exacerbating the problem, gender discrimination in hiring means that women have to be even better employees than men — and invest more time at work —  to advance. Furthermore, Japanese cultural norms place a heavier burden on mothers than on fathers, making motherhood less attractive.

Forced to choose between work and children, a number of Japanese women are choosing work.

Japanese working mothers make 61 percent less than Japanese working men. The gap between the percentage of adult men who work and adult women who work is 24 percent — really high. That's not because Japanese women don't want to work — they do — it's because the Japanese labor market is much harder on women than on men. Those heightened demands force many women to choose between having kids or having a career.

japan population chart

While some women choose kids, many of them choose careers, meaning that there are fewer babies overall, explains Yale University's Frances McCall Rosenbluth, an expert on gender and the Japanese economy.

"You would think that if they can't get into the job market, they'll stay home and have kids," she says. "But that doesn't work if the women who are discouraged in the labor market are more committed to the labor market than they are to the prospect of having family."

Forcing a choice between work and children

shrine maiden japan

A "shrine maiden" offers a blessing in front of assembled businessmen before the Tokyo markets open for the first day of the year. (Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

The difficulties for women in the Japanese labor market go back decades.

"Since World War II," Rosenbluth explains, "the Japanese labor market has been characterized by what they call 'the Three Treasures:' lifetime employment, seniority-based pay, and enterprise unions [unions within one company rather than within an industry]."

The Three Treasures are great for workers who already have good jobs, but hurt people who want to switch jobs — or take significant amounts of time away from work. In other words, if your gender makes it biologically necessary for you take off a few months or years to have children, then the Japanese labor market is far more difficult for you.

Japanese workers work some of the longest hours in the world, are expected to spend a lot of time with co-workers at after-work drinking events, and often have hellishly difficult commutes. Moreover, because they work for the same company their whole lives, they're expected to develop what are called "firm-specific skills:" learning the company's specific way of accounting, for example, or developing personal relations with its clients.

Women who take time away from this intense schedule for pregnancy or childcare often lose their jobs. "In a low-mobility labor market, job loyalty is at a premium," Rosenbluth explains. "Because employers are stuck with whomever they hire, they want to hire people who are going to be productive."

The end result is that women face deep discrimination in the workplace. "Japanese firms don't even really like to hire women," Rosenbluth says, "because women are a less safe bet."

Nonetheless, more and more Japanese women want to work: the female labor participation rate has spiked in the past few decades, even though it still lags behind developed-world standards. Japanese women have often accomplished this by giving up on motherhood.

Exacerbating the problem, women tend to bear a vastly disproportionate burden for childrearing. Just 1.9 percent of Japanese men took paternity leave in 2012. Japanese fathers spend considerably less time with their kids than do fathers in other developed countries, and much less time than Japanese mothers. That number declined from 1994 to 2005, suggesting that fathers are spending less time at home and leaving mothers with a larger burden.

"There have been periods of more female employment in Japan," Rosenbluth says. "Culture is really important, but I also think culture is molded in large part to what makes sense given the [economic] options."

The economic slowdown is destroying marriage

japan businessman reserved seat

A Japanese worker reserves picnic seats for his office during cherry blossom season. (Jennifer Murawski)

Another part of the problem is that Japanese couples, especially Japanese men who expect to be the sole breadwinner, are choosing not to marry because they believe they don't have enough money. Japan's massive economic slowdown over the past 20 years, called "the lost decades," has made it harder for young couples to afford the sort of marriage they want, so they're not getting married and not having kids.

"Many men ... still have the traditional idea of marriage where the husband provides," says Syracuse political scientist Margarita Estevez-Abe, pointing to survey data she says backs this up. "But the economy has changed so much that many men do not have the capacity to be the male breadwinner."

According to a 2014 Cabinet Office survey, 55 percent of Japanese men and 37 percent of women chose not to marry because they believed they didn't have enough money to make it worthwhile. A full 20 percent of men below the age of 60 have never been married, according to Estevez-Abe.

This helps explain why Japan's fertility crisis is particularly acute. Japan has a very low percentage of babies born out of wedlock by international standards, meaning that the decline of marriage rates is strongly linked to the decline of children.

Developed countries with higher birthrates tend to have more equal distributions of work at home. Three Dartmouth economists — James Feyrer, Bruce Sacerdote, and Ariel Dora Stern (the last now at Harvard) — ran the numbers on male family work, as assessed by their female partners, versus fertility rates. Here's a chart of what they found:

fertility around the world cahrt

(James Feyrer, Bruce Sacerdote, and Ariel Dora Stern)

Japan and Spain, at the bottom left, have the men who pitch in the least at home and some of the lowest fertility rates. By contrast, Feyrer and company write, "the high fertility countries in this group — the United States, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway — are also the ones with the most equal division of labor between genders when it comes to housework/child care." Even in those countries, childcare responsibility is hardly equally shared. But it makes a difference.

"It is the [academic] consensus now," according to Rosenbluth, that "fertility actually goes up when the labor market is more friendly to women." So it's not just Japan: women in advanced economies are more willing to raise children when it's easier for them to work. That's because when they're forced to choose between work and childrearing, many choose work.

Is Japan's problem solvable?

japan woman train

A Japanese woman waits for a train. (Kenneth Wong/Getty Images)

Japan's current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has made solving the birthrate a priority. He's announced a plan to increase funding in childcare for 400,000 additional kids. There's good evidence, according to Feyrer et al., that expanding government childcare helps raise fertility rates.

Still, Rosenbluth and Estevez-Abe both told me that the prime minister's plan is not enough on its own. There are other policies Japan could pursue, such as limiting working hours or further expanding childcare. The most promising policy, though, would be dramatically expanding immigration.

japan percentage change population

Immigrants from low-income countries tend to have much higher fertility rates. Moreover, according to Rosenbluth, immigration encourages native-born women to have more kids by expanding the labor pool for nannies.

That's a tough sell politically in Japan, though, which has extremely tough immigration restrictions, a strong sense of national identity tied to the Japanese ethnicity, and a long history of unwillingness to absorb outsiders.

Ultimately, according to both Rosenbluth and Estevez-Abe, the only durable solution is changing gender norms in the home and the workplace to allow women to be successful employees and mothers.

Until "a man is as likely as a woman to take time off during the day, be unavailable on weekends, [and] leave early ... females are going to be at a disadvantage," Rosenbluth says. Fixing that is probably Japan's best hope.


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