The Mystery of Why Japanese People Are Having So Few Babies

TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.

But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.

“The gender stuff is pretty consistent with trends around the world—men are having a harder time,” said Anne Allison, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University who edited the recent collection of scholarly essays Japan: The Precarious Future. “The birth rate is down, even the coupling rate is down. And people will say the number-one reason is economic insecurity.”

This may seem surprising in Japan, a country where the economy is currently humming along, and the unemployment rate is below 3 percent. But the shrinking economic opportunities stem from a larger trend that is global in nature: the rise of unsteady employment. Since the postwar years, Japan had a tradition of “regular employment,” as labor experts commonly call it, in which men started their careers at jobs that gave them good benefits, dependable raises, and the understanding that if they worked hard, they could keep their jobs until retirement. Now, according to Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s Japan campus and the author of several books about Japan, around 40 percent of the Japanese workforce is “irregular,” meaning they don’t work for companies where they have stable jobs for their whole careers, and instead piece together temporary and part-time jobs with low salaries and no benefits. (Such temporary workers are counted as employed in government statistics.) Only about 20 percent of irregular workers are able to switch over to regular jobs at some point in their careers. According to Kingston, between 1995 and 2008, Japan’s number of regular workers decreased by 3.8 million while the number of irregular workers increased by 7.6 million.

Irregular workers in Japan are sometimes referred to as “freeters,” which is a combination of the word freelance and the German word arbeiter, which means “worker.” According to Kingston, the rise of irregular workers in Japan began in the 1990s, when the government revised labor laws to enable the wider use of temporary and contract workers hired by intermediary firms. Then, as globalization put more pressure on companies to cut costs, they increasingly relied on a temporary workforce, a trend that intensified during the Great Recession. “This is a major new development in Japan’s employment paradigm, as new graduates find it increasingly difficult to get a foothold on the career ladder as regular employees,” Kingston and Machiko Osawa, a professor at Japan Women’s University, write in “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm,” an essay in Japan: The Precarious Future.

In a culture that places such an emphasis on men being breadwinners, this has serious implications for marriage and childbearing. Men who don’t have regular jobs are not considered desirable marriage partners; even if a couple wants to get married, and both have irregular jobs, their parents will likely oppose it, according to Ryosuke Nishida, a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology who has written about unemployment among young workers. About 30 percent of irregular workers in their early 30s are married, compared to 56 percent of full-time corporate employees, according to Kingston. “Japan has this idea that the man is supposed to get a regular job,” said Nishida. “If you graduate and you don’t find a job as a regular employee, people look at you as a failure.” There’s even a tongue-in-cheek Japanese board game, Nishida told me, called “The Hellish Game of Life,” in which people who don’t land a regular job struggle for the rest of the game.

Women seeking full-time work frequently find themselves in irregular jobs too, which also has implications for raising a family, since the hours are unpredictable and the pay is low. But it is more of an obstacle for marriage if a man doesn’t have a good job—roughly 70 percent of women quit working after they have their first child, and depend on their husband’s salary for some time.

Women in Japan’s big cities say they’re getting tired of the lack of available men. While in Tokyo, I visited an event put on by Zwei, a matchmaking company. Dozens of women clustered in a small studio to take a cooking class featuring food from Miyazaki Prefecture, in southern Japan. The event was part of an initiative that Zwei was putting on to make them interested in life—and men—outside of Tokyo. Zwei’s business model is based on matching women in Japan’s big cities with men in other areas of the country, where men are more likely to have good jobs and be considered viable partners. “Men in this city are not very masculine and they don’t want to get married,” Kouta Takada, a Zwei staff member, told me. A recent survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that nearly 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women aren’t in a relationship.

I also visited the office of POSSE, a group formed by college graduates who wanted to create a labor union for young people. Haruki Konno, the group’s president, told me that some of the young men in irregular jobs become what are called “net-cafe refugees”—people who live in the tiny cubicles available for rent overnight at Japanese internet cafes. (Shiho Fukada, a photographer, has documented the lives of these “refugees.”) Others with irregular jobs live with their parents or go on welfare.

POSSE calculates that irregular employees earn on average about $1,800 a month, but spend much of that money on rent, paying back their college loans, and paying into Japan’s social-security program. That doesn’t leave them much to live on. About a quarter of Japan’s college graduates—a proportion that roughly corresponds with the share of students who go to big-name universities—are set for life in good jobs, he told me. Everyone else, he said, is struggling. “Men in their 20s, they don’t have an idea of having families or a house,” Makoto Iwahashi, another POSSE member, told me. “Most of them feel that it’s just not a reality.”

The surge in irregular jobs doesn’t just create problems for the people working those jobs. It’s also led companies to feel that they can treat their regular workers poorly, because those workers feel so lucky to have a job, Konno told me. Knowing that people in their 20s and 30s are desperate to get regular jobs, companies hire lots of young people and force them to work long hours for little to no overtime pay, assuming that most won’t be able to survive the harsh conditions, Konno said. Japan has long had a culture of overwork—there’s even a Japanese word, karoshi, for death by overwork—but Konno says that it has worsened since the Great Recession, as companies have realized that good jobs are hard to find in Japan, and so push their employees harder.

Konno published a book in 2012, Evil Corporations: The Monsters Eating Up Japan, that used the phrase “Burakku Kigyo”—which loosely translates to “dark companies” or “evil corporations”—to describe firms that take advantage of workers in this way. That phrase has since become a buzzword in Japan. A group of journalists and labor advocates now issue a Burraku Kigyo of the Year award for the company that treats its workers the worst. (In 2015, Seven-Eleven Japan won the honors.) “It’s harder to find these jobs as a regular employee, and those places that are hiring, they have an advantage to exploit the workers as much as they can,” Konno said.

The result is that even Japan’s “good” jobs can be brutal. People who hold them may earn enough money to support families, but they often don’t have much time to date, or to do anything but work, sleep, and eat. Many are so stressed they can barely function. At POSSE, I met a young man named Jou Matsubara, who graduated from Rikkyo Daigaku, a prestigious private college in Japan. Matsubara, who comes from a working-class family, thought he’d achieved the Japanese dream when he graduated from college and got a job at Daiwa House Group, a Japanese home builder.

The company advertised itself as a great place to work, but Matsubara, who was a wrestler in college, told me it soon became evident that it was anything but. Though company employees left work at 7 p.m. on paper, Matsubara said he was required to work until late at night almost every day. Employees were required to sign off at 7 p.m., even if they were still working, and were given iPads so that they could do so even if they were out of the office at meetings. If they didn’t sign off, they’d get a call on their cellphones brusquely asking them to sign off immediately but keep working, he said. “The amount of time you’re actually working and the amount of time that is recorded you’re working have absolutely no relation to each other,” he said. Matsubara got almost no time off, and was required to take classes to receive real-estate certifications on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which were days he was told he’d have free. This lifestyle made dating impossible. The closest he got to women, he said, was when his boss would drag him to cabaret clubs, and then make him pick up the tab.

After a year, the long hours and stress started to affect his health. Matsubara had trouble sleeping, and started hearing voices. He fell into a depression, he said, because the experience he had expected from a regular job and his own experience were so different. Matsubara told me he was taken to the hospital multiple times in an ambulance because he couldn’t breathe. Eventually, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He said the company forced him to resign, and then made him pay back the money he’d saved from living in a company dormitory. (Daiwa House did not return a request for comment.) Matsubara is now living on welfare. “My life that was going smoothly and systematically was destroyed by Daiwa House,” he said. He estimated that out of the 800 people who started with him at Daiwa House, 600 have quit.

Of course, Japan is not unique in having workers who say they feel abused and overworked by their employers. Nor is it the only country that has seen an increase in temporary workers in today’s economy. But a few things differentiate Japan from the United States and other developed economies. The first is that regular employment is still deeply valued in Japanese culture, so much so that people who can’t find regular employment, no matter their qualifications, are often criticized in a way that people in other countries might not be. “There’s a tendency, when someone doesn’t have a job, to blame them,” Nishida, the professor, said.

The second is that Japan’s is a culture in which hard work and long hours are widely accepted and in which it is considered rude to leave before your boss. People who complain about working long hours may not find much sympathy from friends and family members, let alone the government. Finally, Japan is a country in which labor unions are weak, and often focus on collaborating with companies and preserving the good jobs that do exist, rather than fighting on behalf of all workers, according to Konno. “Unions here are for the companies—they’re not effective,” he said.   

But Japan’s problems do have implications for the United States, where temporary jobs are common, and where union power is getting weaker with every year. As I’ve written before, men are struggling in many regions of the country because of the decline of manufacturing and the opioid epidemic. And studies have shown that as men’s economic prospects decline, so do their chances of marrying. The U.S.’s fertility rate is already at historic lows—and worsening economic conditions for men could further depress it.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has turned some attention to the rise of bad jobs in Japan, but critics say the administration isn’t doing enough. A government labor-reform panel has proposed capping the number of overtime hours that companies could legally require people to work at 100 per month. And this year, for the first time, the Japanese government has also published a list of more than 300 companies that have violated labor laws, hoping that publicly shaming companies will make them change their ways. But overall, the Abe administration is pro-business and anti-regulation, and according to Kingston, of Temple, few of its reforms led to any real change.  

The Abe administration, and Japan as a whole, has long vowed to address the problems of the country’s falling birth rate. Many of those pledges focus on helping women better balance work and family, which is certainly part of the problem. But not all of it: Though Japan’s men have long had more economic and social power than the country’s women, they too need help finding stability in a changing economy.


This story is part of a series supported by the Abe Fellowship for Journalists, a reporting grant from the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.

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