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Last Updated: Friday, 3 December, 2004, 12:58 GMT
Japan sounds alarm on birth rate
By Jonathan Head
BBC correspondent in Tokyo

Buggy in Japanese shop
More and more pushchairs are staying empty in Japan

The Japanese government says urgent policy changes are needed to persuade women to have more children.

Japan currently has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Discrimination in the workplace and poor government policies have been blamed for deterring many Japanese women from having children.

But the government says that unless the trend is reversed quickly, the shortage of children risks doing damage to the economy.

The decline in Japan's birth rate is so severe they have invented a word for it - 'shoshika', meaning a society without children.

Unless women here start having more babies, the population in Japan is expected to shrink more than 20% by the middle of this century. Nearly half would be elderly, placing impossible burdens on the health and pension systems.

An official White Paper which has just been published recommends that the government now focus all its efforts on women born during Japan's last baby-boom, who are now in their 20s and 30s, in a final push to reverse the trend.

Today, record numbers of women in this age group are unmarried and without children. But it is not clear what kind of policies would work.

The government has already introduced a so-called 'Angel Plan', then a 'New Angel Plan', and most recently a 'Plus One Proposal' - all intended to offer more child-care facilities and other benefits for working mothers.

But the biggest obstacle to having families could be social attitudes. Men are still expected to spend long hours at the office and little time at home, while there is pressure on women to give up work when they have children.

A former prime minister who is in charge of the governing party's committee on population famously told women to stay at home and breed.

It is attitudes like that, still commonplace here - and not policies - which Japanese women say are putting them off getting married.


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