In Japan, making babies is a governmental affair

By Aki Ito
Sunday, September 26, 2010

TOKYO - The coastal region of Fukui has Japan's biggest share of dual-income households, its highest ratio of working women and its lowest unemployment. What it doesn't have is enough babies.

So the prefectural government recently started the Fukui Marriage-Hunting Cafe, a Web site for singles, to help stem the falling birthrate - which is damaging the economy. As an added incentive, couples who agree to marry will get cash or gifts, said Akemi Iwakabe, deputy director of Fukui's children and families division.

"Many of our single residents were telling us that they wanted to get married but couldn't because they weren't meeting anyone," she said.

Japan's first online dating service organized by a prefectural government follows national measures to extend parental leave that have so far failed to convince women to have more children. The nation's fertility rate has dropped to 1.34 children per woman, shrinking the pool of workers and consumers, and increasing the burden on younger employees to pay for an aging population.

"It's difficult to breathe life back into an economy without children, without young people," said Naoki Iizuka, an economist at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo. "When an area like this keeps aging, the public finances of that government won't last."

Fukui, about 195 miles northwest of Tokyo, is known for its spectacle frames, synthetic fiber and nuclear power plants that generate a quarter of Japan's atomic energy. It also produces about twice the number of business owners as a proportion to the number of residents compared with the national average.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the number of working-age Japanese will drop to 81 million this year, compared with the peak of 87 million in 1995. The average number of children that Japanese women have compares with Canada's 1.6 and France's 2, according to the World Bank. The 2.1 rate in the United States is considered the minimum for a developed nation to maintain a constant population.

Japan's leaders must take more aggressive measures to help young people raise families, or the baby shortage will accelerate, Iizuka said. About 23 percent of the country's population is older than 65, the highest ratio among the 62 countries tracked by Bloomberg.

Key to boosting the birthrate is getting couples to marry. Three-fourths of the decline in Japan's fertility rate between 1975 and 2005 can be explained by more women delaying or forgoing marriage, according to Miho Iwasawa, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo. Only 2 percent of children are born out of wedlock in Japan, according to the Labor Ministry.

Census data show that 32 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were unwed in 2005, more than twice the percentage 15 years earlier.

The Democratic Party of Japan came to power last year promising to lighten the burden of rearing children. Families began receiving monthly allowances of $150 a child this fiscal year and can now send their children to public high school for free. Prime Minister Naoto Kan appointed Koichiro Gemba to a cabinet-level post to counter the declining birthrate. Kan had also pushed his staff to leave work at 6 p.m. for weekday dates.

Even so, national and local governments need to reach the unmarried, whose rising proportion in the country is the biggest factor behind the shortage of children, said Shigeki Matsuda, a sociologist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo.

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