For Japan's Young Families, a Little Good News

SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's 2007 analysis of 2003 data | The Washington Post - April 18, 2009
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 18, 2009

TOKYO -- Rolling out Japan's largest-ever economic stimulus plan, Prime Minister Taro Aso gave a much-needed gift last week to young families in the world's oldest society.

"Amid this economic crisis, it is of paramount importance that we should protect the future of our children," he said, while more than doubling proposed spending on child care for the coming year.

But his pledge did little to alter a long-standing consensus among business groups, social scientists and parents that Japan remains stingy and unaccommodating when it comes to encouraging women to have more children.

"The government just doesn't get it," said Nobuko Jitsukata, head of a national association of nursery schools. "New nursery schools have not been built and budgets have been cut."

To a much greater degree than other wealthy countries, Japan has been clobbered by the global economic downturn. Its economy has shrunk nearly twice as fast as that of the United States. Still, the recession is but a summer squall compared with the coming demographic typhoon, when a shortage of working-age people will devastate the world's second-largest economy.

The number of children here has fallen for 28 consecutive years. Japan has the world's lowest proportion of children younger than 15 and the highest proportion of people older than 65. Population loss will strip away 70 percent of the workforce by 2050, according to a recent forecast.

Japan desperately needs its young women to marry, have children and remain in the workforce. But women are postponing marriage and delaying childbirth as never before. After they become mothers, only about a third of Japanese women return to work, compared with about two-thirds of American women.

The squeeze on working women with children is quickly becoming a vise on corporate profits and a dire threat to Japan's social well-being, according to Japan's largest business federation, the traditionally conservative Nippon Keidanren. In an eyebrow-raising report this year, the federation implored the government to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to invest $10 billion to build day-care centers for 1 million children who need placement in them.

That did not come close to happening. The record $150 billion stimulus package that Aso unveiled last week calls for $1.5 billion in new child-care spending. Little of it would build day-care centers, and all of it would expire after a year.

"There is a lack of perception about the urgency of this problem," said Katsuichi Imai, a director of economic policy at the federation.

The age and sex of Japan's political leaders also work against fixing the day-care problem, Imai said, noting that most top decision makers are men several decades removed from the trials of raising children. Aso is 68. The prime minister before him was 72. But it is not merely a problem of old male politicians. Even when Japanese fathers are young, they spend less time caring for children than fathers in other developed countries, studies show.

The government is well aware of the coming population crash. For decades, senior officials have been saying that Japan must find a "work-life balance" that produces more children. Several emergency programs have been launched to increase the birthrate. Government spending, though, has not matched baby-friendly rhetoric.

"Financial commitment to child care and related family policies has been modest," said Chikako Usui, an expert on Japan's child-care policies and chairman of the Sociology Department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "This is especially apparent when we compare Japan's commitment with other countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and France."

Among wealthy countries, Japan ranks near the bottom (but slightly ahead of the United States) in day-care spending as a percentage of gross national product. France and Sweden, which spend three to six times as much on children and child care, have seen a significant increase in fertility rates in recent years. Although spending in Japan has increased, Usui said it has not risen enough to affect fertility rates.

There is more to the problem than money. Corporate discrimination against women, especially if they have children, remains rampant, despite laws that forbid it. Studies have found that many employers pressure women to quit after childbirth by moving their place of work far from their homes.

Although the government says it wants working mothers to stay in the workforce, Japan's income-tax system penalizes families in which both parents work full time. If a woman makes more than $13,000 a year, she and her husband are likely to lose a family tax deduction that can be worth $20,000.

"The tax system has to be overhauled if the government wants mothers to work more," said Takatoshi Ito, a professor of economics at the University of Tokyo.

Many women who want to work after giving birth are stymied by a matrix of government rules and private-sector policies that block access to government child care.

"Women who don't work are not eligible for a slot at a government nursery school," said Yoshio Higuchi, a professor of workforce economics at Keio University in Tokyo. "But if they cannot find a place for their child in nursery school, they cannot work."

A long-term government spending plan calls for large increases in spending on care for the country's fast-growing elderly population. There is nothing in the plan, however, to raise spending on child care, a government spokesman said.

Imai, of Japan's business federation, explained it this way: "Politicians pay more attention to the elderly because they vote."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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