A newly married Japanese couple poses at the Meiji-jing temple in Tokyo on May 14, 2015. (Photo: AFP)

By Cristian Martini Grimaldi

Jan 27 2023

The nation’s aging population and low birth rate are complicated issues that call for a diverse approach.

The Japanese government’s policy of increasing financial subsidies for families to have a baby has a long history. It is of course an attempt to address the country’s extremely low birth rate and aging population.

Japan has really tried everything, from providing couples with subsidies for marriage before the age of 40 to encouraging couples to spend more time at home and offering cheaper daycare. In fact, government funds have been heavily spent in recent years to wage war against the hedonism of single individuals with the aim of bringing about a demographic shift.

This time the subsidies that were going to be handed out were about US$400 to match the average price for giving birth at a clinic. And guess what? All those clinics on hearing the news that an unexpected bonus was coming their way have raised their prices accordingly.

So what the government accomplished was to effectively increase future taxation for its citizens, while at the present claiming it was all done with a pure heart and good intentions.

“Traditional family structure and traditional gender roles are slowly but surely coming under attack”

This illustrates the importance in politics of considering the incentives for actors at play while designing public policies. Also, no government has so far addressed an important point of the problem, which is the consideration that couples who have no babies are mostly unmarried.

The Japanese people’s propensity for delaying marriage has in fact always been blamed as the cause of the low birth rate. In fact, married couples are the only reason Japan has any chance of seeing a demographic comeback (2 children per marriage against an average number of children per woman of 1.4).

This means that the traditional family is still a good source of future strength for the nation but this is never pointed out straightforwardly.

One reason is that the traditional family structure and traditional gender roles are slowly but surely coming under attack with the imported justification of discrimination and inequality and society needs to become more inclusive and equal. These are the principles that are starting to make their way into the Japanese education system and politicians are mostly standing on the sidelines watching.

These are all ideas that have no roots in the Confucian Japanese ethos that sees the traditional family at the core of its value structure, and coincidentally enough, they also run counter to the Catholic notion of the family as a fundamental building block of society.

Just like the Catholic Church, Confucianism too emphasizes the importance of the role of the father as the head of the household and the mother as the primary caregiver for the children. In fact, the traditional family in the Confucian culture is not only a source of love, support and stability but essential for the well-being of the State.

“Weddings in Japan are customarily highly expensive because they frequently imitate the standard Western Christian ones”

And so there are several potential strategies that could be implemented to increase the number of married families in Japan, and avoid the forming of too many more uxorious couples.

Encouraging people to marry young is the first. The government could create programs or campaigns that encourage students to also consider marriage, not just a professional career, as a viable option in the near future.

Another option might be to build more affordable housing: but not dull-looking as it actually happens to the public housing complexes. These are more likely to scare away young couples instead.

Young people may find it easier to get married and have families if housing costs are indeed made more reasonable, also considering that in Japan people who are not employed by a big company, or don’t stay employed for at least a few years within the same company, are less likely to see their bank loan request accepted.

Another sensible strategy may be to lower wedding prices, or at least promote a culture where this is not an absolute requirement.

Weddings in Japan are customarily highly expensive because they frequently imitate the standard Western Christian ones, complete with a phony priest and a Church-like hall to rent, which may put some people off. To aid with cost-savings, the government might also take into account measures like significant tax cuts for young couples who chose to get married.

Overall Japan’s aging population and low birth rate are complicated issues that call for a diverse approach and could never be unraveled if the political attitude is to find a single all-problem-solving solution.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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