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Japan's health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, had to pull his foot out of his mouth when addressing Japan's population decline in a speech this weekend. In an attempt to encourage families to have more children, Yanagisawa referred to Japanese women as "child-bearing machines", provoking outrage and embarrassing the Shinzo Abe government:
“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed,” he told the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the city of Matsue. “Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask is for them to do their best per head.”
Before his speech was over, Mr Yanagisawa seemed to realise that he caused offence. “I’m sorry to call them machines,” he said afterwards.
Eminent women reacted angrily. “His remarks were the worst possible and should not have been made,” said Mizuho Fukushima, the woman head of the opposition Social Democratic Party. “We cannot tolerate a Cabinet with such a minister.” The controversy goes to the heart of the debate about one of Japan’s most intractable social problems — the disinclination of its women to have children.
In 2004 the population peaked at 128 million and began to shrink last year. At current levels of decline, it will have fallen to less than 90 million by 2055, with potentially devastating social and economic consequences.
No doubt, Yanagisawa chose a tacky appelation. It reduces the value of a woman to what sounded like a disturbingly clinical productivity measurement, and Japanese women are right to react angrily. Abe will probably have to find himself another health minister, and Yanagisawa may have to find himself a book on women's liberation.
However, the problem Yanagisawa describes will require correction if the Japanese want to remain a vibrant society -- and it's not just the Japanese. Across the developed world, the rates of reproduction have fallen, and in several countries below the rate of replacement. While this trend has exposed nanny-state welfare societies for the Ponzi schemes they are, it still means that the aging populations in the West will create a harsher burden on the succeeding generations, and that as more people age themselves out of the economy, the worse that economy will get.
What has caused the decline? In industrialized societies, people do not need large families to work as an agricultural unit. The need for children as economic security has lessened, and in its place came two-career families -- mostly out of necessity to keep up with costs. That has disincentivized people from choosing larger families, as those require either a stay-at-home parent or expensive day care for a two-income family. Multiple generations are less likely to live together than in generations past, which means the grandparents can't watch the children while both Mom and Dad work all day.
Even in a country like Japan with such traditional roles for men and women, this phenomenon has had its effect. Yanagisawa may have spoken like an idiot, but he certainly didn't make up the problem out of thin air. The diminshing populations of the industrialized world means trouble for Western civilization in particular, as Europe imports more of its workers and loses more of its Western identity. Japan may face the same choices in the near future as its population ages and fewer people remain to support it.Sphere It View blog reactions
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Tracked on January 29, 2007 7:55 AM
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