From 1996 until 2000, I worked as an English teacher in the public school system of southern Japan. Being partly Japanese, I was excited and grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself in the language and rich culture of the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
It was particularly rewarding to witness the devotion of Catholics there. Perhaps because they are such a small minority within a predominantly Buddhist population, Japanese Catholics do not take their faith for granted. The Masses I attended were reverent and, in many respects, reminiscent of the traditional Latin Mass.
Despite the many good things I witnessed, I also observed an alarming trend — one the Register reported on in an article on “demographic winter” last fall (“Where Are the Children?” Oct. 4, 2009). Most of my anecdotal account is consistent with the evidence presented in the article.
During my time in Japan, I married a Japanese woman. When she thought she might be with child, we visited the local clinic. The doctor confirmed that she was indeed pregnant and asked, rather matter-of-factly, whether we wanted to keep the baby. That question left a lasting impression on me. The first time we saw our newborn was from behind the window of a postdelivery room containing 20 little beds. Only two of them were occupied.
A few weeks later, the government sent us about $3,000. I learned this was an incentive to encourage couples to have children. This fascinated me. Until then, I’d been oblivious to Japan’s low-birthrate crisis.
Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. My job required me to sometimes visit local kindergartens and day care centers, and the schools I visited were clearly built for larger numbers of children than were present. Sometimes the disparity was great. One nursery school I visited was built to accommodate 50 children. It had an enrollment of only eight.
Starker still was an elementary school built for a student population of about 100. I was astounded to discover, upon my first visit, only one student. The teacher explained that the school had to remain open until transportation arrangements could be made to bus the boy to a neighboring village. The teacher reminisced with sadness about a time when the school resounded with the sounds of children at play. My mind flashed back to the birth of my son and the 18 empty bassinets.
I would later attend a festival at which elders traditionally take turns calling out the names of babies born that year. That portion of the festival was very short and somewhat awkward, as there were dozens of senior citizens — and only three names for them to announce.
After returning to the United States, I eventually took a position teaching Japanese at a Catholic high school in northwestern New Jersey. One day in class, a student asked whether it’s true that Japanese law allows only one child per family. I explained she was confusing Japan with China. This led to a discussion in which I shared the reality of Japan’s low birthrate.
I cited the following statistic from a white paper published by the Japanese government in 2004: In 1950, there were approximately 28 births for every 1,000 people in the population. In 2007, that number was only eight births for every 1,000. Today the average number of children per Japanese family is, lo and behold, one — the same as in China.
Of course, in China the birthrate is kept low by state mandate. In Japan, it’s low by choice.
One student asked, “Well, isn’t that a good thing? I mean, after all, Japan is such a crowded country.” For most of my students, their vision of Japan is limited to images of overcrowded subways during the Tokyo rush hour. I explained that this image, although real, is no more accurate a reflection of Japan’s population density than Grand Central Station in New York reflects the population density across America.
Also, the view that having fewer children is the answer to society’s problems is as shortsighted as it is false. The Japanese themselves, at least on some practical level, understand this. The aforementioned white paper plainly states that “the foundations of communities, police, fire and other basic services will be threatened by the country’s declining birthrate and aging population.” For a nation to replace its population, families must have an average of 2.1 children: well above Japan’s average of one.
According to a U.S. annual report, Japan’s population peaked in 2005 and will plunge from its current 127 million to 89 million in 2050. That’s a decline of 30%. The median age in Japan today is 43 years old, the highest in the world. The average age in Japan in 2050 is projected to be 61. An increasing number of Japanese leaders are looking for an easy way out of the dilemma of rapid societal aging — as evidenced by recommendations by the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine to allow euthanasia for the terminally ill.
On last year’s Children’s Day, the government noted that the number of children in Japan had declined for the 26th consecutive year. Over the past decade, more than 2,000 junior and senior high schools closed due to lack of students to teach. As I recently viewed a report on Japanese television stating that more than 60,000 teachers are unemployed, I couldn’t help but wonder if that teacher I met at the one-student school still had a job. That same program reported that nearly 100 children’s theme parks have closed in recent years and that more and more pediatricians are switching specialties to become geriatricians.
Since the 1920s, when Margaret Sanger traveled to Japan to promote contraception and sterilization, the Japanese have embraced the modern notion of “family planning.” One recent poll revealed that 70% of young Japanese single women have no intention of getting married because babies are simply “too much trouble.”
This is something Catholic Americans might pray about on Mother’s Day.
What Japan — along with the rest of the modern world — needs is a radical rekindling of love for children. The Japanese must undo nearly a century of anti-natalist propaganda with a massive infusion of the values of family and an appreciation for the beauty and necessity of children.
For if things remain on their present course, Japan may very well find herself the “Land of the Setting Sun.”
Michael T. Cibenko writes from
Branchville, New Jersey.