C: Eutah Mizushima / Unsplash

Finally, Japan’s political elite is talking demography. Will they convince anyone?

With births at less than half of 1973 levels, Japan’s Prime Minister has publicly announced a crisis and has promised measures to stimulate growth. While a mere pittance compared to what China has proposed, or even what some Western states provide, the moves do show that the government is not limiting itself to lamentation.

My impression, though, is that its vision (and arsenal) does seem limited to economics and geopolitics, which are not the only basis on which people are making family and lifestyle decisions.

Having children costs time and money, and lack thereof may prevent people from doing so. But aren’t there other reasons for not wanting more children?

A surprising example appears in a column in the leading Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shimbun. The writer informs us of the 25 percent plunge in births that occurred in 1966, the year she was born. That year was the “hinoeuma”, or year of the fire-horse, according to the 60-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac.

Superstition had it that women born in such a year would “ruin seven husbands” – in other words, they would be helpmeets from hell. Government campaigns to the contrary notwithstanding, this was apparently sufficient reason to postpone a child, or worse.

The author of the column strongly disagrees with this superstition. In any case, the “hinoeuma” is unlikely to  much impact upon the birth rate in 2026, if for no other reason than that the current generation might never have heard of it. But referring to Prime Minister Kishida’s plan, she senses that “women are still being seen essentially as child-rearers who make convenient stand-ins when there is a labour shortage.”

And who wants to be reduced to a cog in the “Japan, Inc.” machine?

As for whether Japanese of child-bearing age will fall for the same superstition in 2026, time will tell. I tend to agree with the Asahi Shimbun columnist, though even 21st century Japan has its superstitions. It is not hard to find hospitals or hotels that have no fourth floor or rooms that end in the number four because the Chinese character for four can be pronounced “shi”, which is a homonym for the word “death.” A maternity ward would almost never have a Room 43, as this can be pronounced as the word for “stillbirth”.

Japanese calendars have their own curiosities. “Taian” are good-luck-days, and popular days to have a wedding or to launch a political campaign; bad luck days are inauspicious and shunned. A couple might say they really don’t believe such things, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure, and in any case one would want to be sensitive to what relatives and invitees to the wedding may think. These people themselves might say they don’t believe the superstition, but still may harbour doubts about the maturity of a couple that doesn’t know how to follow joshiki (“common sense/knowledge”).

So, to get one’s marriage or other project off to a good start, many prefer to follow the convention, simply because it is the convention.

If I may digress for a moment, last semester I assigned a 1,000 word paper, on a topic of their choice, to my Kyoto University students. One of them wrote about the health risks of wearing face masks. Her work was very well researched and I do not doubt that she believed what she wrote. But every time I saw her, whether in or out of class, she was wearing a mask, contrary to what she had recommended in her paper. Academic questions and personal preferences aside, if everyone else was wearing a mask that’s what she would choose to do, it seems.

I have to say that this is one aspect of Japanese culture that I never felt comfortable with: the tendency to conform, even to the point of ignoring or never forming one’s own judgement. But the case also illustrates how strongly human behaviour is influenced by prevailing cultural norms. And the current joshiki isn’t nearly as centred around young men and women forming a family as before.

A recent government survey found that one in four never-married Japanese in their 30s do not want to marry, because of the loss of freedom it would entail, or the increased burdens such as financial responsibilities and housework.

A good question to ask, though, is whether there is any voice telling them and their compatriots that marriage and families are more of a joy than a burden, or that freedom can be exercised and happiness found in being a good spouse or parent. Are there role models to be found in Hollywood or videogames? Are teachers and curricula reinforcing these values? Are children weaned on TikTok and Instagram looking beyond self-indulgence?

A government that only speaks of economics cannot hope to inspire them to. Who is filling the void?

Not all of the data is negative, to be sure. A majority of Japan’s youth still says they hope to have a family of their own. That likely includes some who assume that they can have their cake and eat it, too, with plenty of time for their hobbies, trips or whatever, but nevertheless they are certainly not total loners.

What kind of support is needed? Who can provide that and how? What role are religions playing? Is there a robust civil society (not in my view), and to what extent are they supporting parents?

Answers to questions like these could be at least as important as the current government tack, legitimate though it be.


David Kolf teaches English in Japan and is living proof that one can live there without ever touching a PS console. His article is written with permission 
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