Japan’s demographic decline shows that conformism does not always work: Srabani Roy Choudhury

Down To Earth speaks to JNU Japan expert about the ‘now or never’ statement by Japanese premier Fumio Kishida on his country’s shrinking population  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 28 January 2023

Photo: iStockPhoto from iStock for representation 

East Asia is in a state of demographic decline. On January 17, figures released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics showed a historic drop in the number of people in the country since 1961.

Then, on January 23, Japanese Prime minister Fumio Kishida pledged to take urgent steps to tackle his country’s declining birth rate, saying it was “now or never”.

Down To Earth spoke to Srabani Roy Choudhury, Professor in Japanese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi about what lies ahead for Japan in the light of Kishida’s statement.

Rajat Ghai: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said it is ‘now or never’ for his country as far as its population decline question is concerned. How did things reach this stage?


Srabani Roy Choudhury: It was former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who first stated in 2006-7 that Japan’s workforce was declining and that the country should get to work to sort it out.

Following this, late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came up with his ‘Womenomics’ policy. If you look at Abe’s tenure from 2012-2020, the number of women in the workforce had definitely increased. They had started breaking the glass ceiling and reaching higher places.

Womenomics was one of the few high points of Abe’s domestic policy. On the international front though, he could claim credit for several things.

It was expected that the workforce problem would be sorted.

The pandemic led to a drop in the number of women in the workforce. The reason could be that since homes are small in Japan, a COVID-19 lockdown meant both partners were at home with the kids. And women felt they could not juggle domestic chores and work under such circumstances.

Historically, researchers have mulled over why women did not go to work in Japan despite so much economic growth.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Japan is a conservative and patriarchal society. One reason why women were not part of the workforce was because they were told that they had to raise children who would work for the country and that their identity as mothers was what they must exercise throughout their lives.

After the Second World War, this constant message from successive Japanese Prime Ministers meant that women were happy being homemakers.

Japan’s economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s meant that there was no need for them to work to supplement their husbands’ income. Rather, they were told to spend the money as their country needed it to be in circulation.    

During this time, families usually had one and at the maximum two children. The generation born then, given their economic stability, avoided committment towards marriage.

This was primarily because live-in relationships were becoming common. Women also felt that they should not get married as the burden of bringing up children would fall upon them. This was a time when child care services were not well-developed in Japan.

This was not realised by the Japanese governments of the 1980s and 1990s. It is only by the 1990s that you see a proliferation of government-aided child care systems.

Shinzo Abe put particular emphasis on this and got things going. These child care systems were put in place in a number of neighbourhoods so that women could bring up children and also go to work. Many other incentives to increase the birth rate were also put in place.

But for reasons peculiar to Japan, it did not take off. This is because every need of life has been more or less taken care of in the country. Both men and women thus no longer feel the need of institutions such as family and marriage and are happy being alone. The social structure has thus become very primitive.

RG: Kishida’s announcement coincided with China announcing its population had shrunk for the first time in 60 years. Why is demographic decline taking hold of East Asia?

SRC: Simply put, marriage is a burden for many women in China, Japan and South Korea.

But demographic decline in East Asia differs from that in the Western World. If you look at Australia or the United States, a family of three is popular there though it is not in Scandinavia.

In Australia and the US, women have told me the three-children arrangement means the siblings can support each other and be each other’s friends. But such a large family won’t be possible in East Asia. Also, Asian societies place a huge premium on children’s education.

Japanese women simply do not want to marry because they feel they will see a repeat of what had transpired in their own families: Their fathers would go to work in the morning, come back in the evening, drink and stay awake till late at night. They do not want to bear the burden of bringing up children alone.

In Japan and East Asia, social conditioning had pushed women so aggressively towards bearing and bringing up children that when they got the liberty of staying alone, they did not feel the need to have families. Men also do not feel that need.

RG: Is immigration the only solution to Japan’s problems now?

SRC: I think they may have to strongly consider it. But the problem is that the Japanese have been so determined to keep their society homogenous that even if immigration controls are weakened today, I doubt if there will be many people wanting to go there.

I have known Indian girls who got married to Japanese men in the 1960s. They were not given an equal status till the end of their lives. One can never ‘become Japanese’ unless one is not born one.

RG: Japan has so many firsts. It isolated itself in the Edo Period. Then it underwent a complete metamorphosis during the Meiji Restoration. Now this. What does Japan teach us about the human experience?

SRC: Japan shows that making society very conformist does not always go well. Conformism was the reason behind Japan’s economic miracle. But it has also led to the current state of affairs.

Once Japanese women realised that they had a life beyond being mothers and bearing children for the State, they moved away from the institution of the family.

Japanese women will have to be given something to motivate them to bear children. Kishida’s statement will probably hit some women hard and make them question as to whether they should bear children. But in the long run, a balance between working and bearing children will have to be arrived at.   

The child care system will have to be revamped. Maybe the work-from-home concept will be tried. Maybe stations will be set up at community halls where women can go and work instead of going all the way to the office which is usually located far away.

Kishida’s statement, coupled with what Japan said about gender inequality at the G7 mean that some strong directives will be taken. Or the Japanese people will rethink their life choices at an individual level.

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