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Japan: Land of the falling birthrate

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Posted on Mon, Jan. 24, 2005

INTERNATIONAL

Land of the falling birthrate

A shrinking workplace endangers Japan's future

Associated Press

TOKYO - BY KENJI HALL

In Japan's corporate culture, it was an unusual scene: The country's most powerful business leaders clamoring for more opportunities for women and better company-sponsored child-care programs.

Then again, the country's economic future is at risk.

As the birthrate falls and the elderly population grows, Japan's workforce is expected to shrink over the coming decades. Policy makers are worried that will strain the world's second-largest economy as tax revenues become too small to cover the surging costs of pensions and welfare services for the elderly and retired.

Hiroshi Okuda, who heads the Keidanren -- the influential business lobby also known as the Japan Business Federation -- said earlier this month that Japanese companies had been too slow to examine ways to encourage younger workers to have children.

''Ten years ago, people were stressing this was a problem . . . There are now policies to deal with it, but they haven't had much impact and need to be reviewed,'' said Okuda, who is also chairman of Toyota Motor Corp.

The chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Nobuo Yamaguchi, was more blunt.

Yamaguchi said broadening employment opportunities for Japanese women so they won't have to choose between job and family was the solution.

''Companies have to make it easier for working women to have children . . . To do that, they will have to take on a bigger share of the costs,'' he said at a joint news conference with Okuda.

''Spending to reverse a decline in the number of children is a long-term investment,'' he said.

PRESSING CONCERNS

While the representatives of Japan's two most powerful business organizations also discussed Japan's economic outlook, the possibility of tax increases, and government plans to privatize the postal service at a session examining prospects for the new year, the shrinking workforce emerged as one of their more pressing concerns.

The government said the number of children in Japan dropped in 2004 for the 23rd straight year. As of April last year, the number of Japanese aged 15 years or younger fell to a new low of 17.8 million -- continuing a slide dating back to 1981 -- or just 13.9 percent of the population in this nation of 127 million.

GLOBAL STATISTICS

That proportion is low even by the standards of developed nations, which are grappling with similar socio-economic problems. By comparison, children comprised 20.1 percent of the population in the United States, 18.6 percent in Britain, and 14.5 percent in Spain.

''The falling number of children is a chance to make greater use of women'' in the labor force, Okuda said.

Japanese women have recently begun climbing higher on the corporate ladder since legislation in the 1980s ensured sexual equality in employment.

But they still face hurdles to being accepted in Japan's male-dominated business world. Women are a rarity in corporate managerial posts and on boards of directors, and many still follow the long-standing tradition of quitting their jobs after marrying a male co-worker or having a child.

RELUCTANT MOTHERS

A recent Labor Ministry survey found that 67 percent of Japanese women who quit their jobs to have a child weren't looking for a job six months after the birth.

Experts blame an entrenched corporate mentality among male managers who believe women get weighed down by family commitments that take priority over work.

The lack of a culture of job-hopping also means that women who don't stay on for decades have no shot at executive positions. Only two women sit on the boards at the 27 Japanese companies that are members of Fortune's Global 200 list, according to a survey last year by Corporate Women Directors International, a U.S. nonprofit organization.

''Women who want to return to work [after bearing children] should be allowed to do so,'' Yamaguchi said.

He said companies that spend now to implement policies to help parents pay for education and child care were likely to attract the best and brightest.

Okuda's company, Toyota, is among the Japanese companies with progressive policies.

Toyota lets its female employees take up to a month of paid leave, and both women and men can take up to two years of unpaid leave to raise children, company spokesman Paul Nolasco said.

Toyota also has child day-care centers at its headquarters and plants in Toyota city, Nolasco said.

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This is not so good for Japan; there are fewer births (less youths) and more elderly people as the adult population matures. This is the reason why USA's Medicare program is hitting some financial problems, there's less youths to pay for care of the elderly. I think the tax structure may have to be fixed in order to remedy this.

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That's the dilemma... How do you tax retired people who don't work and don't generate income? That's one reason the age to collect Social Security in the US keeps getting raised.

Japan's other issue is that it's still a very closed society, immigration-wise. It's very hard to become a permanent resident or citizen. The U.S. has a slow birthrate, the effects of which are lessened by steady immigration.

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Japan's other issue is that it's still a very closed society, immigration-wise. It's very hard to become a permanent resident or citizen.

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This isn't just bad for japan. It's bad news for the rest of the world too. I mean we have the second largest economy in the world here. What will happen when its economy is in the slumps due to a lack of workforce? In this day and age we live in a world economy. If one major country is hit, the others suffer as well. For example, after 9/11, it wasn't just the united states that had a blow to the economy but the entire modern world just about.

Point being, we do an awful lot of buisness with japan and if they start hurting, so will we.

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