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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 00:50 GMT
Gender issues key to low birth rate
In the second of a series on Japan's population crisis, the BBC's Philippa Fogarty looks at the reasons behind the country's low birth rate.

Young Japanese mother and her baby
Fewer Japanese women are choosing to have children

In January, Japanese Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa visited the city of Matsue to talk to party members about the falling birth rate.

Arresting the decline would be difficult, he said, because "the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed".

"All we can ask for is for them to do their best per head," he said.

Mr Yanagisawa's comments did not go down well. Women reacted angrily to his choice of words, while the opposition accused him of blaming women for the fertility crisis.

But the episode did highlight one thing. Government measures aimed at boosting fertility have so far failed to deliver the desired rise.

So what exactly is behind Japan's low birth rate?

'Work or kids'

Across the developed world, as a general trend, women are working more and marrying later.

Graphic of Japan's birth rate

But compare Japan with Sweden, for example. More Swedish women work and they marry later, yet the country's birth rate is far healthier. So Japan's troubles cannot be attributed to these two factors alone.

In Japan, people flagged up three separate issues as obstacles to child-rearing - money worries, the problems of working and having a family, and a lack of support for mothers.

"Everyone has the impression that raising a child is very expensive," one Tokyo student said. But many young couples do not have much money.

Pay is often linked to age, while a disproportionate number of young people and women are employed on poorly-paid temporary contracts. Child allowances are low, while housing and education costs are high.

The financial situation for young couples can be even harder because many women give up work when they have children - sometimes reluctantly.

Japanese people give their views on the low birth rate

Some workplaces are unwilling to keep jobs open for mothers-to-be, who can come under both direct and indirect pressure to leave.

In small and medium-sized firms, says Dr Kuniko Inoguchi, former minister for gender equality and social affairs, around 70% of pregnant women end up quitting.

For those women who do return to work, things can be hard.

Many struggle to find affordable child care facilities that can keep infants all day. Others discover that although they have jobs, they bear no resemblance to the ones they left and promotion is no longer a possibility.

"Many women want to work and have kids," said Mitsuko Kamaya, a housewife.

"But it's still the case that it is either work or kids. Women feel that they have to throw one dream or the other away," she said.

"If there was a system that guaranteed women could get back to work, I think more would feel secure enough to have kids."

Hard work

Then there are the practicalities of raising children.

"Families used to live with all the generations together," said one Tokyo pensioner.

"That was good for everybody, as there were more people around to provide support."

My colleague's wife has just had a baby, but he has to work until 2300 every night, he only ever sees the baby when it's asleep
Tokyo businessman

In rural areas where this is still common, birth rates are above the national average. But many young couples live in cramped city apartments far from relatives and when babies are born, husbands tend not to compensate for the lack of family assistance.

According to a lifestyle survey in 2001, married men only spent about 30 minutes each day on household tasks or with their children.

This is partly down to traditional attitudes - Japanese men tend not to cook, clean or change nappies. But another problem is a culture of long working hours, followed by compulsory after-work socialising.

"My colleague's wife has just had a baby, but he has to work until 11 o'clock every night," said one Tokyo businessman.

"He only ever sees the baby when it's asleep."

So child-rearing can, in some cases, prove a lonely and exhausting solo experience for mothers, many of whom then decide to stick with just one child.

Social change

Osaka City has the second lowest birth rate in the country, behind the capital, Tokyo. In 2005 it stood at 1.15 births per woman, well below the national average of 1.26.

In recent years, officials there have worked hard to introduce family-friendly policies. There are now more day care places available for children of working mothers and the facilities are staying open longer each day.

Primary schools are running after-school programmes for children whose parents both work, while stay-at-home mothers can now use a pay-per-hour baby-sitting service when they need some time to themselves.

But the birth rate is not rebounding.

"We can try to publicise the idea that having a child is a good experience, and work to create an environment in which women feel secure enough to have one," said Yasuko Baba of the city's Children and Youth Bureau.

"But we can't say 'please have a child'. Ultimately it is up to them."

Dr Inoguchi says the government needs to spend more on helping young families. But she says there also needs to be social change so that both men and women have a better balance between work and family.

And the population crisis is helping to highlight where the problems lie.

"This very dramatic changing demography and the alarming view that we may not be able to sustain the greying of the population is now leading to - belatedly and reluctantly - the mainstreaming of gender issues," she said.

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