Less can mean more?

Population swings have long been the subject of debate, study, analysis, predictions of doom and gloom, and general chitchat for the uninformed.
In reality, there is no such thing as an “ideal” population. There are, however, many takes on required numbers to maintain, improve upon, and even decrease, living standards at any given point in time. Overcrowding is clearly an issue, and one most people stuck on a train between 7:30 and 9:00am would agree needs addressing in the Land of the Rising Sun.
So, why all the fuss on the issue of the falling birth rate in Japan? Is it much ado about nothing, or a sign that the bells on society as we know it are starting to toll?
According to many sources, the Japanese birth rate is in apparent freefall, and this strikes fear into the hearts of many. They seem to be afraid they will have no youngsters available to work, pay their dues, and thus take care of their parents’ pension requirements.
But isn’t that plain greedy? A selfish approach at best? How many consider asking women in their 20s, 30s, and even early 40s nowadays why they choose not to have children?
The government is, admittedly, trying to address the right of women to maternity leave following childbirth (a right that is, it must be said, already standard in most other industrialized nations). Similarly, local governments around Japan are offering increased financial assistance for childbirth costs (often in the region of ¥300,000 – ¥600,000 per child born), but both measures fall flat on their faces.
Just because the government implements equality of the sexes, an impressive maternity leave program, and the right to return to a previous job once the baby is older, it does not mean the private sector follows suit. Often these laws are ‘recommended’ or ‘advisory’ in the real world, so those announcing pregnancy in the office are congratulated, then summarily asked when they will be leaving.
Similarly, increased local government assistance simply enables local gynecologists and those running maternity hospitals to raise prices at a commensurate level to governmental increases. There are few, if any, areas where local assistance to expecting parents is greater than costs incurred during childbirth.
Sadly, the chances of the birth rate increasing in the long term are dismal at best. Consider the following trio of points:

Marriage break-ups

Divorce in Japan is far too easy – sign, stamp and it’s all over! (NB – for those registering marriage outside Japan, the quick and painless sign on the dotted line form available at a city office near you might not be accepted in your own country, leaving you still married overseas, even if single again in Japan.)
Recent figures show around 27 percent of all Japanese marriages end in divorce. This may not in and of itself contribute to dwindling birth rates, since many are now waiting till the kids have grown and left home to separate. Nonetheless, this figure hardly promotes the concept of the happy home into which the next generation is likely to bring kids.

Parasite singles and the ‘stay-at-homes’

True, ‘parasite single’ is now a dated phrase, but there really is no better way to describe those in their 30s and 40s still essentially living at home, off mummy and daddy, and spending any money they earn themselves on going out and generally having a good time.
Tokyo is expensive, making it hard to make that initial move beyond the childhood home, but so are many other big cities. Only by kicking these folk out into the wider world will Mom and Pop ever fully contribute to their own – and their offspring’s – future. Humans are supposed to find mates, reproduce, and raise families of their own. Circle of life and all that. Get with it, parents!
As for the ‘hikikomori’ stay-in-your-bedroom types, there are mental issues at hand if psychologists are to be believed. TLC may be the way to go, but so too may be the school of hard knocks according to most in ‘normal’ society. For the greater good of the nation, perhaps another form of turfing out is required, albeit in a more gentle manner.

Job equality and prospects

Several years ago, surveys showed thousands of Japanese women clamoring each year to pack their bags and ship out. Destination U.S.? Nope, and not the EU either! Most were heading to China for the simple reason that their job (and linguistic) skills would be appreciated, their chosen field of study in university would not be translated as it is in the Japanese business world to mean “can make photocopies and green tea,” and where advancement was not decided based on gender, marriage, and that old chestnut of a question-cum-expectation: “When are you leaving to have a baby?”

Is it all really doom and gloom, though?

Not at all, if the realists out there could have their say. Besides the usual jokes about being able to actually breathe on the Yamanote Line during rush hour if and when the population goes down, there are more than a few other benefits to lower birth rates:
Hospital waiting times could be reduced to minutes as opposed to the hours patients in 2010 are accustomed to.
Long-term hospitalization and overall treatment levels would benefit no end as professionals in the industry start to recognize patients more as clients, rather than just names on paper. The days of routine over-medication and overnight stays demanded by docs to ‘observe’ a splinter in the thumb might take a tad longer to do away with, but as the population dips, the need to improve service levels will rise. Look a long ways down the road and hospitals and medical unions might even approach the government to demand the 3-month limit on staying in a particular facility be done away with.
Schools, too, will become a lot less snobby come registration time, particularly private kindergartens and elementary schools. As the number of children nosedives, institutions will need to focus more on offering the kind of education that will help advance careers in the real world, rather than (their own) name value and lists of past alumni. Universities around Japan already face this dilemma given plunging enrolment rates.
And of course, perhaps most importantly of all, overall quality of life could improve if the number of residents in these islands dips by around a third by 2050, as is predicted.

Imagine

The days of bullet trains being filled to a dangerous 200% capacity, and traffic jams on the last day of a holiday period stretching for 30, 40 or more KM could be a thing of the past.

Beaches in summertime may even have patches of sand visible to the naked eye instead of appearing as more of a mass of humanity gathered in one spot at one time. Swimming pools may live up to their name – and permit swimming rather than standing.

Come winter, the ski slopes will see fewer accidents as those donning skis or posing on snowboards find themselves able to turn without bumping into other people.

For those living in Tokyo with a sweet tooth – even the line at Krispy Kreme could become endurable, as opposed to something requiring advance planning and books to read as you wait.

More kids? Or shorter lines at the donut stand?
Think about it.

Story by Mark Buckton
Photos by Haruna Miyash

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