Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Dearth of Births: Japan and More

The average number of births per woman is referred to as the fertility rate for a population. For most countries a number of about 2.1 would lead to a steady-state population. The fertility rate varies widely from country to country with economic conditions and cultural mores playing a significant role. A tabulation of this value for the countries of the world can be found here. The only country not included is Vatican City, which might have provided the most interesting data of all.

The top country is Niger with a fertility rate of 7.19. Twenty-two of the top twenty-five are African countries with Mozambique at twenty-fifth with 5.11. The three exceptions are Afghanistan (7.07), East Timor (6.53), and Yemen (5.50). At the bottom of the list are a suite of Asian countries.

Macau         0.91

Hong Kong  0.97

South Korea 1.21

Singapore     1.26

Japan            1.27
Also at the bottom are a slew of Eastern European countries with eerie similarities.

Belarus        1.20

Ukraine        1.22

Poland          1.23

Bosnia/Herz. 1.23

Czech Rep.   1.24

Slovakia        1.25

Lithuania        1.26
The table includes data spanning 2000-2005, and 2005-2010. It is interesting that the United States comes in at a steady 2.05, right at the replacement level. That of the world as a whole is 2.55. China, with all its population control efforts, is at 1.73. Russia is at 1.34. Perhaps the gloom of Russia still casts a pall over Eastern Europe.

It is easy to come up with economic and cultural rationals for high birth rates in Africa, but an explanation for the lower rates of Asia and Eastern Europe is not quite so obvious. An attempt is made to explain Japan in an article in “The Economist:” The Dearth of Births: Why are so few young Japanese willing to procreate?
“Since the mid-1970s, when it became clear that the number of births was resolutely declining, Japanese governments have made efforts to encourage people to have more babies. But for all that they have increased child benefits and provided day-care centres in the past 30 years, the birth rate has remained stubbornly low. One reason is that in Japan, unlike in the West, marriage is still more or less a prerequisite for having children. Only 2% of births take place out of wedlock. And weddings cost a lot of money. The more elaborate sort may involve renting a chocolate-box “church” and hiring or buying at least three bridal outfits. The average cost of a Japanese wedding is about ¥3.2m ($40,000).”

“Having gone to all that trouble, married couples do, in fact, have an average of slightly more than two children, just above what is needed for births to exceed deaths. The trouble is that fewer and fewer people get married. Women wait ever longer and increasingly do not bother at all. According to the NIPSSR, six out of ten women in their mid- to late 20s, which used to be the peak child-bearing age, are still unwed. In 1970 the figure was two out of ten. And almost half the men between 30 and 34 were unmarried in 2005, more than three times as many as 30 years ago.”
The reasons why marriage rates are low seem to be cultural quirks unique to the Japanese.
“But the cost of weddings may be the least of the reasons why the Japanese are increasingly putting off marriage or avoiding it altogether. One weightier one is that employment rates among women have increased but private companies implicitly discourage mothers from returning to their old jobs. Toshiaki Tachibanaki, an economist who has written on inequality among Japanese women, finds that about 80% of female civil servants return to their old jobs after having children because they get reasonable maternity benefits and help with child care. But in private companies they are typically less well looked after, and only about a third go back to work.....So most women are forced to take low-paid irregular or part-time jobs after having children.”

“It does not help that unemployment is high and incomes are low among the young—especially among young men, who increasingly give up even looking for jobs. One of Japan’s most prominent sociologists, Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University, thinks that most young Japanese women still want to be housewives, but are struggling to find a breadwinner who earns enough to support them. He points out that half the young people of prime marrying age—20-34—still live with their parents. In the 1990s he coined the term ‘parasite singles’ to describe them. They seemed to be getting a good deal, saving money on rent and spending it on foreign travel and luxury goods instead. If they wanted privacy, they could always go to one of Japan’s ubiquitous love hotels.”
Japanese men take a beating in this article, consistent with other reports that have been published.
“Since then the ‘parasites’ have got older, and a lot of them are living with their parents not because they want to but because they cannot afford to live independently. They are moving towards middle age but have remained single, working for low pay or unemployed. Some have even become what Mr Yamada calls ‘pension parasites’, living on their parents’ pensions.”

“Part of the problem may be that young men, who during Japan’s free-wheeling boom era rarely saw their workaholic fathers, do not want to fall into the same trap. Some of them have become ‘grass-eating men’ who prefer clothes and cosmetics to cars and avoid life in the fast lane. Others resort to hikikomori, locking themselves in their bedrooms and refusing to talk to anyone, even the parents who deliver food to them. Many of them have watched their mothers divorce their fathers on retirement. Those men are cruelly known as ‘dead wet leaves’, whose wives have trouble sweeping them out of the home. The Japanese are also learning from personal experience that looking after elderly parents can be more costly and time-consuming than looking after children. That may be another factor in their calculations.”
Factors that inhibit marriage will, in general, drive down birth rates. That could be part of the explanation for the low rates observed in other countries. However, this explanation for Japanese behavior is so intriguing that one might wish that each country had its own tale to tell.

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