What happens to a prosperous, peaceful society whose women decide en masse they have better things to do than have babies?
Nobody knows. It's never happened. But Japan is about to find out.
This nation's young women are now offered an unprecedented array of personal and professional freedoms, but the joys of children and family life are still bound by traditional constraints. The result of millions of women's individual decisions is a collective baby strike.
For Sakiko Ono, a 34-year-old graphic designer, a child might ruin her long love affair with her husband. For Dr. Mio Masuda, a 31-year-old endocrinologist, a second baby would end any hope for a prestigious career. Piano teacher Sachie Takamori and her husband desperately want a second child, but their daily struggle with careers, commutes and family obligations leaves them barely enough time and money to raise one.
And so the birthrate falls. Within six years, the population of the world's second-largest economy and ninth-most-populous country will begin to shrink.
Even by the government's rosy forecast, Japan will have 14% fewer citizens by 2050. A third of the population will be older than 65. More than 15% will be older than 80. And that assumes that Japanese women will eventually marry and start bearing children.
Many private analysts consider it more realistic that the birthrate will remain low. Barring immigration and assuming that fertility stays where it is, by 2050 the Japanese population would plunge 31%, from the current 127 million to 88 million.
Environmentalists say population decline in an overcrowded, import-dependent nation like Japan will prove a blessing as world population skyrockets from 6.1 billion to an estimated 9.3 billion in 2050.
But economists warn that the baby bust could keep Japan mired in a semi-permanent recession. The soaring ratio of retirees to workers will pose dire challenges to the nation's pension, medical and welfare systems, its labor practices, its bond ratings, even perhaps the viability of its financial system.
For more than a decade, spooked politicians have tried castigating, cajoling and finally bribing women to have babies. But as long as men can't or won't help raise their children and are penalized if they put family ahead of work, their wives say they can't have both careers and children.
Japan is hardly alone in grappling with these brave new social and economic problems. It's on the cutting edge of a phenomenon that will affect most of the leading industrialized nations.
In the United States, fertility rates are expected to hover just below replacement level for the next 50 years, but immigration and a large number of citizens of childbearing age will keep the population growing steadily.
However, according to projections by the United Nations Population Division, by the middle of the century, 39 countries will have populations smaller than they do today. Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Cuba are all expected to lose a quarter or more of their populations by 2050.
In fact, while populations in the least developed nations continue to soar, 64 developed nations now have birthrates lower than the 2.1 children per woman required to keep a population stable.
"Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all around the world," says American demographer Ben Wattenberg. "We are in uncharted territory."
Historically, many populations have experienced temporary drops due to famine, plague and warfare, including, in modern times, the Stalinist purges in Russia and the mass starvation during China's "Great Leap Forward," notes Dr. Kenji Hayashi, a Japanese demographer. To some extent, the baby busts in Russia and Ukraine, which will experience even steeper population declines than Japan, can be explained by geopolitical turmoil, economic disaster and despair.
But never before has a nation like Japan--affluent, peaceful, with the world's longest life expectancy--experienced a sustained population decline, Hayashi says.
And while European nations, notably Italy, Sweden and Spain, are facing similar demographic trends, the twin phenomena of a fast-aging society and an extreme birth dearth are putting a particular strain on tradition-minded Japan.
Unlike Italy, xenophobic Japan is loath to allow immigrants to solve the labor shortages expected to begin in 2020. And unlike Sweden, which makes it financially attractive for single mothers to bear and keep their children, Japanese society is unwilling to tolerate out-of-wedlock births.
Polls find that 84% of Japanese believe that their slumping birthrate and fast-aging population are serious national problems.
In his first speech to parliament, new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promised to end the day-care shortage and expand child-care hours to help mothers keep working and boost Japan's economy.
Still, many Japanese think that government policies will fail without dramatic changes in traditional attitudes about gender roles, both at home and in the workplace.
"The falling birthrate and aging society are terrible for the future of Japan," says Ryoichi Suzuki, a Japanese family planning expert. "However, it will be futile for the government to say to women, 'Please have children,' if that choice is not made by women themselves."
And increasingly, marriage--and especially child rearing--is a bad deal. The financial, social and personal costs of motherhood--what American author Ann Crittenden has dubbed "the mommy tax"--are far more punishing for Japanese women than for their more vocal American and European counterparts.
What happens to Japanese society as it becomes one of the most geriatric in the world?
Besides the economic issues, the aging population will require sweeping social changes. Half of all elderly live with their families, and the burden of nursing them is falling hard on the shoulders of a generation of middle-aged Japanese women. The burden is likely to get worse as women in their 60s and 70s find themselves caring for parents and in-laws in their 80s and 90s. The widespread phenomenon, known as "nursing hell," is keeping older women out of the work force and contributing to their daughters' doubts about the institutions of marriage and family.
Why are Japanese staying unmarried in unprecedented numbers?
War between the sexes is nothing new. Four centuries before Christ, a Greek playwright had women stage a sex strike to force their men to end a war. Today, Japanese young people are reinterpreting that ancient drama. Women are postponing marriage by the millions--and then sometimes deciding not to tie the knot at all. They complain that they have changed but that Japanese men have not. Men gripe that women want their freedom but also want their bills paid.
Even if Japanese women and men find a new modus vivendi and begin having more children now, population decline is unavoidable.
But is it bad? Will a less-populous Japan be gloomy or glorious?
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Japan's Population Implosion
Japan's population will peak by 2007 and then begin declining. How far it will fall is a matter of debate. A version of this apocalyptic chart showed that there would be only one Japanese left in 3500. However preposterous, the chart was widely used to warn of an impending demographic crisis. The current government forecast is more optimistic and projects a population of 109.2 million in 2050.
Sources: Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare; National Institute of Population and Social Security Research; United Nations Population Division
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No Yen for Babies
Japanese women cite financial pressure as the primary reason why they have not had as many children as they would have liked.
Raising a child is too expensive: 37%
Education is too expensive: 34%
I don't want another child at my age: 34%
I can't stand the physical or psychological burden of another child: 21%
House is too small: 13.4%
Physically incapable of bearing a child (infertility, illness, etc.): 13%
A child would interfere with my work: 13%
Note: More than one answer was allowed.
Source: 1997 survey of married women under 50 by Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research
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The Baby Bust
Japan's fertility rate has plummeted and is now among the lowest in the industrialized world. Just 1.19 million babies were born in 2000--even fewer than during the dark days of World War II.
Source: Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, "Demography Statistics 2000"
Sonni Efron recently completed a 4 1/2-year assignment in Japan. Researchers Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report. Photographs for The Times by Shima Hayase.
Japan's Demography Shock
Today: Wrenching decisions about having children
Monday: Caring for a graying society
Tuesday: A singles' paradise worries about tomorrow