Why Japan’s Family Policies Have Failed: A Gender Perspective on the Demographic Crisis

Society Economy Lifestyle Family Work

The government has presented Japan’s plummeting birthrate as an existential crisis. But can the Kishida cabinet’s family policies succeed where others have failed? Approaching population decline from a gender perspective, sociologist Meguro Yoriko argues that more fundamental changes are needed to reverse a trend rooted in Japan’s postwar economic policies, business culture, and deep-seated patriarchal attitudes.

Meguro Yoriko

Executive director, Gender Action Platform (GAP); professor emeritus, Sophia University. Born in 1938. Earned her PhD in sociology from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Taught Japan’s first college course on the sociology of women at Sophia University in 1974. Has served as chair of the Japan Society of Family Sociology, alternate representative of Japan to the United Nations General Assembly, and representative of Japan to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Established GAP in 2011. Co-editor of Shōshika no jendā bunseki (A Gender Analysis of the Falling Birthrate) and Yuragu dansei no jendā ishiki—shigoto, kazoku, kaigo (Men’s Gender Attitudes in Transition: Work, Family, Nursing Care).

Alarm over Japan’s declining birthrate began to spread in 1990, after the government calculated a total fertility rate of 1.57 for 1989—the lowest figure since the end of World War II. The fertility rate had dipped as low as 1.58 in 1966, but that was an unusual phenomenon connected with a superstition regarding the character of women born in the year of hinoeuma, an unfavorable zodiac sign that comes just once every 60 years. When the rate fell even lower in 1989, it ignited a sense of crisis, referred to in Japan as “the 1.57 shock.”

Since the 1990s—beginning with the Angel Plan of 1994—the government has been trying to stem the decline through assistance to families with young children, as by expanding the availability of childcare services. In 2015, then Prime Minister Abe Shinzō proclaimed the goal of maintaining Japan’s population (then at 127 million) at no less than 100 million through the year 2065. To this end, his government introduced a major package of pro-family policies, including an increase in daycare capacity, free daycare for children aged 3 to 5 (and for younger children in low-income families), and free preschool education for all.

Nonetheless, the fertility rate has continued to fall, as more and more people delay marriage or remain single. According to the latest projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan’s population will sink below 100 million in 2056. We asked sociologist and gender studies pioneer Meguro Yoriko to share her views on Japan’s demographic crisis.

Changing Attitudes

Meguro was among the first scholars in Japan to approach the decline in fertility from a gender perspective. In 2004, her research team’s findings were published under the title Shōshika no jendā bunseki (A Gender Analysis of the Falling Birthrate).

“At that time, mainstream scholarship approached population matters as economic or labor-supply problems, relying mostly on analysis of macro data,” says Meguro. “There was virtually no discussion of the issues from a gender perspective, even though childbirth is a basic question of self-determination for women. We can’t grasp the causes of the decline in birthrates without considering changes in women’s consciousness and behavior.”

In addition to collecting statistical data, Meguro’s research team conducted extensive interviews of single adults and university students. Their analysis revealed that, from the 1980s on, gender attitudes among young Japanese women had been evolving much more rapidly than among men and older women. Increasingly, young women felt trapped and suffocated by Japanese society’s conventional “gender structure,” which required women to devote themselves to domestic matters while their husbands performed the role of breadwinner. That dissatisfaction was translating into a rejection of “marriage by default” and “obligatory childbearing.”

Japanese Corporatism and the Modern Family

Meguro believes that the decline in fertility is largely a result of government and corporate policies adopted after World War II to hasten economic recovery and growth.

In the early postwar era, amid the baby boom of 1947–49, the government actively promoted the use of condoms by married couples, concerned about the impact of overpopulation on the economy. In addition, the Eugenic Protection Law effectively legalized abortion as an alternative in the event that contraception failed.

Rapid urbanization and industrialization also favored smaller families, a trend encouraged by government and business alike.

“Industrialization centered on heavy industry progressed rapidly in the early postwar years,” says Meguro. “Manufacturers built company housing near their factories and had production going round the clock, operating three shifts. To maximize labor productivity, it was desirable for wives to devote themselves to the home environment so that their husbands could concentrate on their jobs. Having fewer children made it easier for such families to maintain their quality of life. In this way, a corporate-focused family structure took shape.”

Corporations’ family policies, aimed at maximizing worker productivity, meshed with the government’s policies, which prioritized rapid economic growth. By the mid-1970s, a “corporatist” concept of the modern Japanese family had taken hold: a hardworking “salaryman” husband, a full-time housewife, and, ideally, two children.

Spread of Foreign Influences

At the same time, Japanese society had begun to accept the idea of women working part time to supplement the household income. Unskilled, low-paying jobs were, and remain, the norm.

“The husband could still preserve his male pride as long as he told himself he was letting his wife earn a little extra pocket money, as opposed to having her work to support the family,” explains Meguro. “This suited most wives as well, since they didn’t want their work to interfere with their household duties. For corporations, meanwhile, cheap, part-time female labor functioned as a useful pressure valve, facilitating workforce adjustments.”

In the second half of the 1970s, the Japanese government, aligning itself with the UN-led international women’s rights movement, began to hammer out policies oriented to gender equality. Yet even amid the passing of legislation like the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, Japan in the 1980s strengthened provisions of the tax code and pension system that gave preferential treatment to full-time homemakers as primary caregivers for children and elderly parents. Reinforcing corporations’ personnel practices, these provisions—at odds with international trends rejecting the division of labor by gender—had the effect of discouraging career building among married women. But they could not halt the evolution of Japanese women’s consciousness.

“The feminist movement first emerged in the United States in the 1960s, a period of great social change, including the Civil Rights Movement,” recounts Meguro. “From there it spread to Europe. Radical feminism never gained much traction in Japan, but the international movement for women’s advancement and empowerment was an important external stimulus, influencing the attitudes of Japanese women. From the 1980s on, more and more of them began questioning the assumption that a woman’s place is in the home. I think we can identify the 1980s as the decade when Japanese women’s gender attitudes underwent a decisive change.”

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo was a milestone in the effort to reframe population issues from a gender perspective. The resulting Programme of Action affirmed women’s reproductive rights, emphasizing their freedom, as individuals, to determine how many children they would have and when. The same concept was incorporated in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. It took hold among Japanese women as well.

“Since the time of the 1.57 shock, certain politicians and business leaders had been blaming the declining birthrate on the rising rates of college education and employment among Japanese women. Statements like that began to draw fierce criticism from women. They were finally speaking out, insisting that it was up to each of them—not male politicians and government officials—to decide whether or not to have children.”

The Gender Consciousness Gap

With more Japanese women challenging the conventional view of marriage as an inevitable prelude to children, the foundations of the “modern family” were beginning to wobble. Accelerating this consciousness shift were life-course changes resulting from longer lifespans and fewer children. Aware that their lives were likely to continue long after child-rearing duties were finished, women were more apt to delay marriage and childbirth.

“With lifespans extending to 80 and even 100 years, the second half of one’s adult life promised to be quite long, and women sought more options for self-realization,” says Meguro. “They began questioning the standard life course prescribed for them by society: first marriage, then childbearing, then child rearing, then elder care.”

But while women’s attitudes were changing, men’s expectations remained rooted in the image of the “modern family.” Meguro believes that one important factor behind the growing tendency of Japanese women to delay or dispense with marriage and children was the gap between men and women in terms of gender role attitudes.

Meguro believes that government policies have failed to boost Japan’s fertility rate because they fail to take such factors into account, focusing too narrowly on the economics of child rearing.

Misguided Family Policies

“The government has operated on the assumption that the economic costs of having children and caring for them are the basic reason for the decline in the birthrate, and with that in mind, it has tried to solve the problem by improving the child-rearing environment, channeling support to young families. Of course, public support for children’s health and welfare is important, but can’t boost fertility by itself, as we’ve seen. Marriage and childbearing are individual choices. The government’s job is to grasp the needs of individuals and help them secure what they’re lacking.”

Ultimately, Meguro believes that the biggest culprit in the demographic crisis is Japanese industry. “The persistence of patriarchal attitudes among the men who run our corporations is the biggest reason for the continued decline in the birthrate,” she says. “We need to address the gender gap at the workplace level with the help of arrangements and systems adapted to the needs of employees who want to marry and have children.”

Exacerbating Japan’s demographic woes is the shift in male employment patterns that began around the beginning of this century, as companies responded to economic stagnation by curtailing recruitment of permanent employees and increasing their reliance on lower-paid temporary staff and other nonregular workers. Men who found themselves in this position often felt unqualified to marry, lacking the economic guarantees of job security, scheduled pay raises, and a decent pension. Moreover, women often agreed.

“There is a tendency among women, in this age of longevity, to look for a partner who can offer economic security into old age,” acknowledges Meguro.

The obvious solution to the problem is a two-income family. But lingering prejudices among men, supported by government and corporate policies, have impeded such a shift. Thus the image of the postwar “modern family” continues to cast its shadow over Japanese society.

In this respect, not a great deal has changed since Meguro published her groundbreaking book on gender and the birthrate almost 20 years ago. Halting the decline in fertility, she says, will require a restructuring of the social systems that have been built around the gender-based division of labor. It will also require a more flexible approach to marriage and children.

“The number of births will continue to drop as long as society insists that they take place within the traditional institution of marriage,” she says. Noting that marriage can be a daunting step for young people, Meguro supports the custom of cohabiting for a period before formally marrying, as is common in Scandinavian countries. “We’re too limited by the constraints of legal marriage and the assumption that marriage has to come first, before children. I say let’s loosen these chains! If we had a social system that treated all children equally, regardless of their parents’ marital status, and a social consensus supporting child rearing in a variety of family structures, I believe the fertility crisis would disappear.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Kimie Itakura of Nippon.com. Banner photo: A participant in Women’s March Tokyo, held on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2023. © AFP/Jiji.)

depopulation birthrate women Fertility rate family policy gender gap