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A childless future in Japan?

Low fertility is a crisis, but government funding won’t solve a problem of misplaced priorities

Elderly Japanese citizens rest under a tree in Tokyo. Associated Press/Photo by Shizuo Kambayashi

A childless future in Japan?
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In a dramatic address to the Japanese Parliament last month, the normally businesslike Prime Minister Fumio Kishida issued a Cassandra-like warning to the nation: “Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society.” The source of the crisis? Neither war, nor pestilence, nor economic collapse, but childlessness.

For decades now, Japan has been the global poster child of a graying society. Its fertility rate fell below the replacement level of 2.1 children per women nearly a half century ago in 1974, and has never recovered. Today it stands at 1.3, and the country has more citizens over age 65 than under 25, the only such nation in the world. The country’s population has begun shrinking in recent years and is on track to fall by 60 percent by the end of the century. No wonder Prime Minister Kishida warned that the country “simply cannot wait any longer” and must implement policies to encourage more child-bearing right away.

It wasn’t long since that elite opinion dismissed concerns over falling birth rates as Chicken Little hysteria. If anything, we were told, they were evidence of progress, “a sign of women’s advancement and improved conditions, including their participation in the workforce,” as a 2018 Vox article put it. And with too many humans putting too much pressure on the planet, many progressives welcomed the coming population decline. However, as many other developing countries have joined Japan on the path to national extinction, the dangers of a childless society are becoming harder and harder to ignore.

Most obvious are the social and economic burdens of a smaller and smaller share of working-age adults supporting a growing population of elderly retirees, but aging electorates will also have profound political ramifications as societies lose the will to plan for the future. Perhaps worst of all, there is reason to think this process may become self-reinforcing. Young people entering adulthood in a society headed for extinction will have less motivation to undertake the sacrifices and hard work of marriage and child-rearing as they consider the gray and weary world their children may grow up to inhabit.

This point highlights one reason why demographic decline has been so hard to reverse, even as developed countries have thrown billions of dollars at the problem, even offering generous child support and parental leave incentives. Prime Minister Kishida’s proposals amounted to more of the same, a forlorn hope that a generation of Japanese uninterested in child-rearing might be financially incentivized to become interested.

Few pause to consider that the real issue is a society in which women are told that career, rather than motherhood, is their only path to personal fulfillment.

Progressives argue that if Japanese women don’t want to have children, perhaps foreign women will, and the solution is simply to open the doors wide to immigration—a suggestion also frequently offered as a solution to America’s declining birth rate. However, this is at best a short-term fix, as birth rates are plunging worldwide, and data suggest that more-fertile immigrants quickly reduce their childbearing habits to resemble those of the host society.

Many progressives complain that the root problem is persistent gender inequality: if child-bearing women are expected to take more time off work to be mothers, no wonder they refuse to sacrifice their careers. Few pause to consider that the real issue is a society in which women are told that career, rather than motherhood, is their only path to personal fulfillment.

Many pro-natalist policies reinforce this mindset, reassuring women that they can minimize the impact of motherhood on their working lives by handing off their infants to government-funded childcare. Rather than admitting that parenting involves massive sacrifice, and encouraging us to embrace such sacrifice as a duty within which we can find true fulfillment, our leaders promise to find ways of enabling citizens to have more babies without any disruption to their careers or consumption habits.

One thing is certain—Japan is not alone. Neighboring China recently announced that, despite frantic attempts to reverse the trends created by its “one-child policy,” its population had declined for the first time on record. The United States, until recently relatively fertile compared to its peers, has seen a rapid decline of its birth rate in recent years as millennial mothers have increasingly opted for one child or none.

Even as pundits wring their hands and wonder why, the causes are not far to seek. Rather than treating child-bearing as a natural and essential part of what it means to be human, a difficult but noble duty, we have demoted it to a lifestyle choice that depends on which sex acts you prefer, which drugs you take, and what makes you feel happiest. As C.S. Lewis famously observed nearly eight decades ago, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. … We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Why would anyone think that can work?

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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