Japanese Women Shy From Dual Mommy Role

Takako Katayama is one of the many Japanese women who are choosing to postpone marriage, causing a plunge in birthrates.Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 28, 2008

TOKYO -- "I have never met a Japanese man who did not want me to be his mommy."

That is the reason, Takako Katayama says, that she has not married. At 37, she has carved out a comfortable life here in Tokyo, with her own apartment, a good job at a cable television network, and a network of family and friends.

She has not closed the door on marriage and children. When she meets girlfriends for dinner, they ask each other, "Where are the good guys?" But she refuses to settle for a man who works long hours, declines to share in child-rearing and sees marriage mainly as a way to acquire lifetime live-in help.

"I want a mature, equal-partner kind of marriage," she said. "Anyway, there are complete lives without a baby."

Therein lies a dismal prognosis for Japan and for many of the other prosperous nations of East Asia. In numbers that alarm their governments, Asian women are delaying marriage and postponing childbirth.

In Japan, the percentage of women who remain single into their 30s has more than doubled since 1980. The trend is similar in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and the booming Chinese cities of Shanghai and Beijing.

Feminine foot-dragging on the way to the altar has been identified by demographers as perhaps the primary reason for the region's plunging birthrates. Of the 10 countries or territories at the bottom of a 2008 CIA ranking of global fertility rates, six, including Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, are in the Asia-Pacific region. South Korea also ranks near the bottom.

"Women on Strike," a recent report on Japan's falling birthrate by the securities firm CLSA, noted that the number of children per married Japanese woman has held steady for three decades. "This suggests that the decrease in fertility is due almost entirely to an increase in women of reproductive age not getting married and not having children," the report said.

Regional leaders are waking up to the growing reluctance of working women to complicate their lives with children -- and with husbands who refuse to help raise them. A very high percentage of Japanese women eventually do marry, but by postponing it they narrow the window for bearing children.

"We need to organize our society so that women and families will be able to raise children while working," Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in an interview in May. "I think we still lack adequate efforts on that front."

This year, Fukuda's government is pushing a "work-life balance" program that addresses the country's famously punishing work ethic. It pressures companies to shoo workers (primarily men) out of the office at night. The intent is to improve the quality of family life and, in the process, make more babies.

The stakes are high here in the world's second-largest economy, which now has the world's highest proportion of people over 65 and lowest proportion of children under 15. According to a recent forecast, population loss will strip Japan of 70 percent of its workforce by 2050.

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