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Fiery Horse hobbles Japan's fertility future
By Richard Hanson

TOKYO - In 1966, as the Japanese economic "miracle" was is full swing, the curse of the Fiery Horse, or Hinoe-uma, galloped through the land like a demographic stampede. An old wives' superstition says that that every 60 years the horoscope's Year of the Horse turns fiery. The unfortunate girls born in that year are not suitable for marriage.

Sure enough, 1966 was a baby-boom disaster. The ratio of girl to boy babies born that year hit a historic low. On the flow charts, the Fiery Horse looks like a brief sharp spike downward. What population experts call the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) resumed a gradual rise for the rest of the 1960s.

What Ryuichi Kaneko, a 20-year veteran in the government's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSS), and his colleagues now say is that the curse of the Fiery Horse was more of a warning of a future population planner's worst scenario: that Japan's population that would both age and shrink from the start of the 21st century into the foreseeable future.

"The next five years will be the last chance to try to do something," Kaneko warns. "We are already in an almost permanent Fiery Horse situation. Women realized the problem first, but people failed to realize the whole picture."

Many of those people are among Japan's male-dominated political leadership, which has focused on the possible long-term economic consequences - employment, economic growth and stabilization of the nation's debt-ridden national finances. The larger crisis that is already gripping Japan is social - and, well, personal.

"The big problem is marriage," says Kaneko. "In an historic view, the declining Total Fertility Rate is the history of marriage."

Marriage? This is not just a matter of getting married and divorced, or even a long-term trend toward marrying late. What researchers - and women, in particular - are beginning to recognize is that Japan's fertility problem, long focused on the female quotient, is perhaps equally the result of male behavior.

As in all matters of sex and reproduction, the numbers don't reflect motivations or individuals. But a recently released 2001-03 study, "Fertility and Marriage", of the shrinking birthrate and child-care problem by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare revealed, among other things, some telling statistics on the subject of not getting married.

In the 1920s, the percentage of "no marriage" females was steady at around 10%. This percentage became distorted by the still much-resented (by women) wartime policies of the 1930s and early 1940s aimed at producing babies for the war effort.

Two years after World War II, Japan had its only true baby boom between 1947-49. The number of births was about 2.7 million per year, and the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), defined as the number of children an "average" woman is expected to give birth to during her life, was over four children. After this baby boom, fertility rates declined rapidly. By the year 1956, the TFR dropped to 2.22 and the number of children born that year reached only about 1.6 million.

As one scholar points out, in the 1950s as other Asian countries were struggling with population explosions, this rapid drop in fertility rates was called the "Miracle in Japan". This "miracle" did not happen without reasons, rather it was the result of a number of government programs, including the "New Life Movement", family planning and family financial planning. These were both public and private efforts.

The curse of the Fiery Horse aside, Kaneko of the NIPSS points out that another "boom" in births took place from 1971-74, followed by a return to shrinking birth rates. "This was just the 'echo' of the 1947-49 generation of female babies," Kaneko emphasizes.

Japanese national fertility surveys show that from 1992-2002, the tendency of married couples to postpone having children increased "drastically". But, on the other hand, there has been little change in the numbers of kids. "Couples" in general were still having 2.2 babies in 2002, the same as in 1972.

Other non-scientific observations indicate that this boom was limited and reflected the serious trend toward a drop in the number of births per women to under two children. This is the generation that saw the TFR ratio slide to the current record-low ratio of 1.29 - again, roughly the edge where Japan stops producing enough babies keep the population stable.

Back to the role of "no marriage" men in the fertility equation.

According to NIPSS statistics, the ratio of never-married men at the age of 50 jumped from 1.5% of men in 1955 to 12.6% in 2000. That is a jump about twice as large as for never-married women, whose numbers doubled from 2.5% to 5.8% of all women.

"The role of men in the decline of the population is very little noticed," says Kaneko. That is certainly true when it comes to the Japanese government's latest measures to be taken regarding the overall questions of the shifts in Japanese demographics. Indeed, the most heated debates over the future of Japan's population still tend to be among economists and academics, both from the private sector and the government.

One key element involves disagreements over just how swift and severe will be the consequences of Japan's rapidly aging population, starting with the next five years that the government is focusing on. The private estimates are even more alarming than the government's projections.

On the private side, a comprehensive view of the dilemma was published recently by Peter Morgan, an economist with HSBC Securities (Japan), Ltd. "Falling marriage and birth rates could mean far fewer births in Japan than expected," the report says. "This could drastically reduce the share of children in the population - what we term as 'Childhood's End'".

The HSBC estimates are even more stark concerning the next five years. Morgan's analysis suggests that births could fall more rapidly than generally expected. His report says that the government's projection that the number of births will fall by 43% by the year 2050, at which time children up to the age of 14 will represent only 11% of the total population, is somewhere in the "middle". HSBC's shocking conclusion is that "a plausible extrapolation of the current trends could cut the number of births by 75% between now and 2050. This would drive the ratio of children to as low as 6%. They currently represent 14%.

Privately, some government officials agree with parts of the report's conclusions. But, the government is not at liberty to make projections that outpace the official policies of the government.

So the emphasis for the next five years, as set out in the Ministry of Health's White Paper, is to take a positive position. The five years from 2005 could be a good opportunity for Japan to halt the falling birthrate. This would depend on persuading the generation of women born during the second baby boom of the 1970s, who will reach childbearing age, that bearing children is a good idea.

Remember that these women will be the "echoes" of the "echoes" of the short-lived, but memorable 1947-49 baby-boom generation. There is only speculation (and direct observation) of the intentions of that generation. As usual, the government is just looking at the numbers. The population of women in their 20s and 30s, the key childbearing years, is estimated at 8 million to 9 million over the next five years.

"It is important to implement policies that will allow women in this age bracket to give birth and rear children with ease," the Ministry of Health's White Paper says. As a token, the government is planning to build more nurseries that will allow men and women to have steady jobs "for greater independence", while their children are cared for.

This may sound like a proposal made, or at least approved, by men. Past experience shows that working male participation in child rearing is still an iffy situation. But nevertheless, on December 24, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government announced its latest policy step in dealing with the aging problem: a new five-year plan to help working parents. The plan, approved by a government task force dealing with the falling birthrate, includes the goal of introducing child-care leave at all companies; at this time, women can be penalized, or even fired, for taking leave.

The task force, headed by Koizumi, based its plan on a policy outline, adopted in June, that also calls for reducing the number of employees working long overtime hours by at least 10%, government officials said. The plan proposes encouraging young people to become independent and balancing home and work by reviewing the way people work. The officials said the plan also calls for deepening people's understanding of issues related to life and families and renewing support for raising children.

According to government data, about 60% of companies offered child-care leave as of 2002, and about 12.2% of employees worked 60 hours or more per week as of 2003. The government plans to encourage workers to take paid days off, aiming to raise the rate at which employees actually take such leave to 55% or more. It says that in 10 years, 20% of working fathers and 80% of working mothers should be taking child-care leave.

The government also plans to drastically increase the number of child-rearing consultation centers where parents can ask questions as well as places where parents can leave children in temporary care when they themselves are sick. For single-mother households, the government plans to boost the number of women who obtain professional qualifications with support from their employers.

The government also plans to set up a nationwide network of child abuse prevention centers. And it plans to remove physical barriers at busy train stations and airports so that baby strollers can be moved easily.

Population officials are not convinced that these sort of measures can turn the corner on population shrinkage in the next few years. The five years starting in now are psychologically important. This period will mark the actual projected start of the fall in population from the current 127 million people. The birthrate hit a record low of 1.29 per woman in 2003.

Just how the public will react is hard to predict. So far, women (and those elusive and so far silent men) have yet to vote with their bodies and minds. But Kaneko of the population institute says: "It's a good opportunity ... The next five years are out last chance," he adds. "We have no choice."

The next year of the Fiery Horse is looming in 2020.

Richard Hanson, veteran correspondent and expert on Japanese economy, finance and politics, is the author of Money Lords: The Pride and Folly of Japan's Finance Ministry Elites.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

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