Are Traditional Gender Roles Destroying Japan?

CREDIT: Flickr user born 1945

An endangered species?

An endangered species?

An endangered species?

CREDIT: Flickr user born 1945

It is known, as they say, Japan is facing a fertility crisis — you know it’s bad when The New York Times runs pieces with titles like “Without Babies, Can Japan Survive?” The reasons for Japan’s dearth of youngsters have been less clear, but a disturbing new article in The Observer fingers an potentially counterintuitive suspect: Japan’s crushingly gendered social and corporate world.

Abigail Haworth’s article is peppered with hair-raising statistics about Japan’s breeding crisis. For instance, 2012 saw the fewest Japanese babies born in recorded history, and 90 percent of young Japanese women believe staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.” It quotes the head of Japan’s branch of the International Planned Parenthood Federation as saying the island nation “might eventually perish into extinction” without more children.

People often attribute this crisis to Japanese cultural peccadilloes — the country’s fascination with pornography, for instance — or the “usual suspects” in fertility panics, contraception and abortion. There are no doubt multiple causes behind Japan’s baby crisis, but Haworth suggests a more economic explanation: “what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country’s procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense.”

“Official shortsightedness” means public policy. Working Japanese mothers get very little support from the state, and bosses consider marriage a death knell for a woman’s career. “The bosses assume you will get pregnant,” one woman tells Haworth. “You have to resign.” And roughly 70 percent of Japanese women do, in fact, stop working after child #1.

As career-oriented women are turned away from child-rearing, so too are less career-driven men. Rather than becoming stay at home dads, Haworth documents, Japanese men who don’t want to define their lives by working 20 hour days are simply avoiding marriage for fear of being forced to become the primary breadwinner.

The problem goes deeper in Japan’s working structure than Haworth lets on. The Political Economy of Japan’s Low Fertility, a scholarly collection edited by Yale political scientist Frances McCall Rosenbluth, lays blame on the very nature of the Japanese economic system itself. Japanese companies practice a “lifetime employment” model, dubbed a “gentlemen’s agreement” by one Japanese economist, wherein employees generally stay with one company from college until retirement while, in exchange, that company grants them informal tenure. In Rosenbluth’s account, this system creates a “penalty suffered by a worker taking time off to care for small children,” as any time taken off trades off with time spent building up “firm-specific skills” at your lifetime employer. Since Japanese gender norms still demand that women take charge of child-rearing, women and men alike find it near-impossible to create a work-life balance once kids enter the picture. So they simply don’t have kids in response.

The obvious solution to this fertility problem, at least based on the American and European experiences, is to massively expand government support for working mothers and women. Indeed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed “extending child-care leave, expanding day-care facilities and asking companies to hire female board members.”

But it’s not clear that’ll be enough. Japan’s problem is deeper than a lack of financial security for working mothers; it’s that a toxic combination of sexism and a rigid model for corporate advancement make child-rearing unattractive for men and women alike. That means absent a overnight revolution in gender norms, the government may need to consider more drastic measures — legal protections ensuring career advancement for women get pregnant, for instance.

There are some broader lessons from Japan’s gendered fertility crisis. First, while Western conservatives tend to blame feminism and contraception for any fertility problems their country is purportedly having, the culprit could just as easily be an excess of gender traditionalism. Japan’s experience suggests that, unless women are somehow convinced that they really don’t want the careers they’re intent on having (highly implausible, to say the least), then fertility will suffer so long as women are expected to always be the primary child-rearers.

Second, it’s always important to look beneath the surface when talking about “cultural causes” of social and political problems. Trend piece after trend piece about Japanese sex-and-dating practices ends up reading like the literary equivalent of rubber-necking: “look at how weird those weird Japanese people are!”

But many of the seemingly alien cultural trends Haworth documents, like “herbivorous” Japanese men who voluntarily abstain from sex because dating is too much of a hassle, don’t come out of nowhere. In context of Japan’s basic social structure, these things seem more like rational adaptations to a society whose rigid gender and economic hierarchies make the cost of pursuing emotional satisfaction prohibitive.