TV & Radio
The (London) Times January 05, 2006
Women are told to have a litter in Year of Dog
From Leo Lewis in Tokyo
IN A sign of rising despair over the country’s dwindling birth rate, the Prime Minister of Japan has suggested that his people should take their cue from the canine world and breed larger litters of offspring in the Year of the Dog.
Junichiro Koizumi’s unexpected “do as dogs do” advice arose during his new year press conference — his first public appearance since it was revealed a week ago that Japan’s population contracted by 19,000 last year and is shrinking for the first time in more than a century. Since this is now the Japanese Year of the Dog, he explained, Japanese in 2006 have an ideal role model from the animal kingdom: “Dogs produce lots of puppies and, when they do, the pains of labour are easy,” he said, adding that he will now do everything in his power to “fashion an environment where people can think raising children is delightful”.
Beyond this canine counsel, and in what is almost certain to be his last new year’s speech as Prime Minister, Mr Koizumi offered no other ideas about how to deal with the birthrate problem. In Tokyo, home to 30 million people, the rate has declined to 0.99 children per woman.
Although Mr Koizumi has pushed through a string of difficult reforms in Japan, his failure to address the birth issue is striking. He has repeatedly been asked whether he has a strategy in place, and repeatedly said that he does not.
The arrival of Japan’s first year of natural population decline has been vaguely predicted but has actually come far sooner than expected. Even the Prime Minister’s jovial dog litter remarks, say political analysts, have the “clear ring of panic about them”.
In its last session of 2005, the Cabinet announced a gender equality initiative that was widely interpreted as a last-ditch attempt to stave off the country’s looming demographic catastrophe. The seemingly impossible plan was designed to create conditions in which the nation’s women will both stay at home to have more children and work harder.
At its core the new drive is a package of improvements to working conditions which, it is hoped, will remove some of the obstacles preventing women from having larger families. Measures include the introduction of flexible working hours and a proposal that hundreds of shops left vacant by the recession be converted into childcare facilities.
But the scheme also attempts to address the other side of the demographic problem: as the population contracts, so too does the workforce, with potentially dire economic effects. The Government’s solution is to cajole more women into coming back to work after their child-bearing days are done.
The plan, which has been awkwardly dubbed Help Female Re-Challenge and has been pushed through the Cabinet by Mr Koizumi himself, aims to create a generation of women leaders in business and political fields.
Around 70 per cent of Japanese mothers do not return to work after childbirth. Part of that pattern is cultural, but much of it has to do with the practical difficulties of returning to work: women find it nearly impossible to return to good jobs that they have left in order to have children.
This forces Japanese women to make a stark choice between career and maternity, and the current generation is increasingly interested in pursuing a career.
By introducing flexible working hours and actively encouraging mothers to return to work, the plan aims to present child-rearing as something that does not hamper a career.