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Professor Imamura on Japan's demographic crisis

Photograph of Dr. ImamuraDr. Anne E. Imamura is currently Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. Until her retirement in 2015, she was the Area Studies Division Director at the Foreign Service Institute (United States Department of State). She has also taught at Sophia University in Tokyo; the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur and the University of Maryland, College Park.

Twice a Fulbright Scholar to Japan, and the recipient of a Japan Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, Dr. Imamura’s academic training includes a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University and an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii where she was twice an East West Center Fellow

Among Dr. Imamura’s publications are: Re-Imaging Japanese Women, University of California Press, 1996; Urban Japanese Housewives: At Home and in the Community, University of Hawaii Press, 1987; Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Japanese Culture and Education, co-edited: International Press, 1991; and numerous journal articles and book chapters including “Family Culture” in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2009 as well as the forthcoming publication of “Where do I Belong? The Japanese Family System and the Individual in the Early 21st Century” (working title) in the proceedings of the conference on Japanese Self-Images-The Idea of Uniqueness”, Axel and Margaret Ax:Son Johnson Foundation, Engelsberg Ironworks, Sweden, September 8, 2016.

On January 31, 2017, Dr. Imamura spoke with Caroline Willian CMC '17. Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Imamura.

Japan's birthrate has been slowing, in part because of a reduction in marriages and an increasing age of marriage. What cultural factors have led this to happen?

There are a number of factors that have led to this. If you read Japanese government White Papers, they consistently point out that the structure of society has become too individualized. They would like to move away from that individualization but that is not what is happening. At the same time, if you start to look at this issue over time, this has been an issue for Japanese for several decades. For at least 40 years, you can find concerns about the delay in marriage and the declining birth rate. 

Beyond individualization, there are economic factors. Women today can support themselves, although not necessarily at as high a level as they would like. Nonetheless they no longer have to marry to be economically solvent. At the same time, because it is harder today for young men to find stable jobs with good pay, young men are less attractive marriage partners than they were in 1960. Women are also competing in this economic climate in which there are far fewer stable, long-term permanent jobs than there used to be. Women aren’t getting better jobs than men, but they have more opportunities than they did 30 years ago.

There are societal factors as well. Marriage is no longer seen as necessary for a woman’s happiness. That began to change as far back as the 1980s. The concept that a woman can live a fulfilling life without getting married is an idea that has been percolating for the past 30 years. Also, young men and women say that dating is too much trouble. They can go out with their friends, mostly same sex friends, and enjoy life, or enjoy company through social media; but to go out on an actual date and try to market themselves to another person seems to be a bit troublesome. That’s a change. It’s difficult for people to meet their “ideal spouses.” Once people join the workforce, they are working long hours and they have little opportunity to meet people who are from outside their workplace environment. 

So, since there’s nothing particular to be gained by marrying—unless you want to have children—there is no real pressure until women get close to 40. Then, those who want to get married and have children start actively seeking marriage partners. There’s a Japanese term “ara fo-.” In English it translates to “around 40.” As women approach their mid-30s, they may say “well, the biological clock is ticking if I don’t get married and have children now, I won’t be able to do so.” Then they may get more serious about hunting for a partner. Until then, if they find somebody, that’s great. If not, there’s still time to do that later. Women who want to continue their careers express concern in public opinion polls that getting married and having children will damage their career prospects. So, women in their 20s and 30s who are career-oriented are not in a hurry. If they want to have children, they wait to do something until they get closer to 40.

Now for men, if they do not have solid well-paying jobs with long-term prospects, they are really disadvantaged in the marriage market. Women still want to marry men who earn enough to support their family, even those women who intend to keep working. 

There is still another factor. Japan has a family registry system. The current system has been in place since post World War II. This family registry system in many ways makes marriage a bit rigid and makes the gravity of being married pretty clear. Each family has a registry up to two generations, parents and children. When you marry, your name is entered into your spouse’s registry and in most cases the woman enters her husband’s registry. The law states that married couples must have the same family name which is reflected on the registry.  Although the question of allowing spouses to have separate family names has been discussed (and law suits have been brought) for decades, the same family name law still stands. This can be a challenge for women who wish to continue to use their maiden name professionally but recent changes allow the recording of birth name along with (married) family name on the various legal documents and encourage the private sector to allow women to use their maiden names professionally while the official employment records would be under the married name. 

Also, women are not necessarily in any hurry because they realize that once they get married, they are expected to have children (at least one child) and mothers have the major responsibility for their children’s education. They know they will be criticized if the children don’t do well in school, in particular if the mothers are working outside the home. All of this is taken very seriously.

But, again, the major challenge for women and for men is how to meet somebody to whom you are attracted, who shares your values, and who can build with you the kind of married life you would like to have, while you hold a full-time job (which, by the way, can entail a vast amount of overtime). 

Japan's demographic crisis is more extreme than that of other developed countries in part because very few children are born outside of wedlock. How ingrained is the importance of children being born to married couples in contemporary Japanese culture? Could you foresee this potentially changing?

It is very important for a child to be born to a married couple because of the family registry system I just mentioned. If a woman has a child outside of marriage, she will have her own registry and the child will be added to her registry. This will show that the child was born outside of marriage and there is still discrimination. For example, there is the concern that children born outside of marriage will not have a stable family environment and therefore will not be stable citizens and stable participants in the labor force, in schools, and in their own marriages. Single mothers may actually let people assume that they are either widowed or divorced. Now, they couldn’t do that legally, but if nobody asks, they don’t need to tell.

There are severe economic factors that contribute to this as well. It’s very hard to support a child as a single mother. Women typically are not employed in the most lucrative jobs in Japan. If they are employed full time in those jobs, they will have very little time to care for the child. They will need full time childcare, but there is a lack of daycare in Japan. Nannies are not readily available; in fact, the concept of employing a nanny is almost unknown in Japan today. So, unless there are relatives to help, childcare is a major problem. Moreover, it is very hard for a single mother to get support from the father. First, he has to legally acknowledge the child, and then he has to sign an affidavit saying he’s willing to pay.

Paternity testing is not commonly done. It’s interesting that despite Japan being a scientifically advanced country, more traditional norms dominate. How would the mother compel a man to have the DNA testing if he wants nothing to do with it? There are legal ways to do this, but pursuing them can be costly financially and time consuming. The same is true for a woman who is pregnant at the time of her divorce. 

In what ways has the Japanese government been actively encouraging young people to marry? Have their solutions been getting at the heart of the problem?

The fact that marriage rates are still declining shows that they haven’t gotten at the heart of the problem. But the government has encouraged and in some cases provided funding for matchmaking events. They have encouraged employers to cut working hours so that there will be a better work-life balance, which is one of Japan’s buzzwords these days. 

The government has also made marrying foreign brides more possible. There’s a real shortage of women to marry men in the agricultural sector. It’s a very small sector but farmers for some time have had a hard time finding Japanese women to marry them, and in these cases farmers and other men in small towns will go on a tour to meet young women in the Philippines, other Southeast and some South Asian countries, and even China. Through a kind of matchmaking service, foreign women agree to marry these men and live in their husband’s family in Japan. Now there’s a huge adjustment involved (in terms of language, culture, and even food), but there is local government support for these foreign brides. 

The Japanese government has also begun focusing somewhat on childcare in order to help women combine marriage and career. The government hasn’t been that successful in meeting the growing demand, but the government hopes that increasing daycare and advertising its support for working mothers will encourage people to marry. But since the marriage rate is not increasing, one can say that the government has not yet gotten at the heart of the problem.

The Japanese live much longer than those of many other developed societies. What stress does the elderly population place on Japanese society at the moment, and what has Japanese society done to deal with this?

The stress is huge. Japan has known for many decades about the aging of its society and is trying to deal with this issue in a variety of ways. However, I have not seen any analysis or data that Japan is keeping up with the increased presence of the elderly in Japan. 

One challenge for career women is that caregiving is still primarily women’s work. Over the course of a woman’s life, she gets married, she has elderly parents, and her husband has elderly parents. Traditional norms would say that wives would look after their husband's elderly parents. But as you’ll see with the declining birthrate, in many cases couples have only one child. As a result, when younger people marry, there are four elderly parents that require care from this single married couple. With caregiving still primarily perceived as women’s work, elder care is yet another stress for women who would like to continue to work across their life cycles. 

Japan’s elderly also have some of the same advantages and disadvantages as older people in other developed societies. Medicine can keep people alive for a long, long time. There are issues dealing with older people who have dementia and need professional care. Over the past several years, the Japanese government has enabled foreign caregivers to come into Japan and provide care to the elderly. Foreign caregivers have to have certain qualifications and cannot stay for longer than 3 years unless they can pass tests in Japanese, but this is one thing that the government has done to try to solve the problem of care for the elderly. The government also builds retirement care facilities and retirement homes. One problem is that although the government has said that there will be retirement homes and care facilities within a reasonable distance from where the elderly live so they won’t have to be uprooted too much, the truth of the matter is many of these facilities are not near, or near enough, to the major cities, particularly Tokyo. When people have to move far away, they are then isolated from their family and friends. The government has also promoted retirement villages or communities but the problem is much greater than what the government has been able to deal with so far.

The government has made long-term care insurance required, so every Japanese person must from a certain age pay into a long-term care insurance program. The concept of care is changing from something provided by the family to something provided by the government. This change has been interesting to watch. Japanese public opinion surveys show that people now consider that they have a right to have care provided by the government. It is not welfare and it is not something they should be ashamed of because their children couldn’t properly care for them. Attitudes are changing even if there is an insufficient supply of caregivers.

Normally if a person quits her job to take care of elderly parents, there is no equivalent job to return to once her elders have passed away. Japan’s employment system doesn’t allow for this. There is little to no lateral hiring, especially for the best jobs that have security until retirement and high salaries and good benefits. If you have one of those career-oriented jobs where you could stay until the mandatory retirement age, and you leave that job, you are very unlikely, at whatever age, to get an equivalent job in the Japanese employment system. This is a major problem because then women can’t quit and return in a few years. Also, the number of male caregivers is increasing and the same lack of rehiring opportunities applies to men. What will they do? Japan needs an able-bodied workforce. These people have skills Japan could use, but right now there’s not an adequate route for them to be reemployed in full time positions.

Recently the government has provided tax incentives for people to build 3 generation houses for those who wish to live with their children’s family. This exists but has a limited effect. 

How much of the population is choosing to emigrate? Has emigration played a role in worsening the demographic crisis?

That’s easy: none. There isn’t major Japanese emigration.

Japanese society has a history of isolationism. How receptive are the contemporary Japanese to the idea of immigration? Could an increase in immigration feasibly ameliorate the problem?

Japan has recognized and discussed this issue for decades, but the Japanese are still not very receptive to permanent immigration. There are various ways that foreigners can come and work in Japan for a short period of time. When the Japanese needed labor, particularly in the automobile industry, they recruited people of Japanese ancestry from South America and brought them to Japan. But as the economy began to decline, they didn’t need as many people. Then, when Japan’s economic bubble burst, there were incentives to send these people back to their original country. 

Now, for people who are not of Japanese ancestry, there still are very, very few long-term openings. Not that there aren’t non-Japanese people in Japan, but Japan has not gone out liberally and opened its doors to immigrants who wish to settle there permanently and work. The government also has not done anything about changing the employment structure to make that easier. And yes, immigration could help with Japan’s demographic issues, but the Japanese are voting by their feet - they haven’t changed these things. They feel that immigrants would never be truly Japanese and it would change the nature of Japanese society.

Could the demographic crisis be ameliorated by encouraging women to remain in the workforce longer? How ingrained are the institutions that encourage mothers to stay home?

You can go back to the beginning of this century, and Japanese Prime Ministers have talked about increasing the number of women in management positions. As far back as 2003, the then Prime Minister proposed a goal of having 30 percent of management roles filled by women by 2020. Again, that was 2003. Recently, the current Prime Minister, Prime Minister Abe started arguing for the same kind of goal, since the first was not accomplished. He actually had to adjust the goal to 7 percent by 2021. By any standard, you see that Japan has a very low percentage of women in management positions. So, what are some of the things that work against women staying in the labor force?

One thing that works against women staying in the labor force is the tax system. There are deductions for married couples. If a married woman earns more than about US$12,000, then the family loses tax deductions, and dependent allowances and it becomes expensive for her to stay in the labor force. So, if you know over time that you're going to have earnings that will compensate for what you lose in the tax break, and that either for long-term economic or personal profession reasons it is worth the investment for the wife to pay social security on her own, then the women will stay in the labor force. But if it’s just making an economic decision, she might decide that she should keep her work below the $12,000 level and work part time, because it is an economic advantage to her family. And you find that over several decades the percent of women who are in part time or temporary work has increased incrementally. Women will marry, have children, take their child care leave, quit, and when they’re ready to go back to work the opportunities for part time and temporary work are there and that’s what they will do. 

But, Japan has some really good structures in place. Women are entitled to a fourteen-week maternity leave at about 60 percent of their salary. And they also, through social insurance, can get a lump sum that covers approximately the cost of a normal birth. These laws are in place. Employers also must allow mothers to take off for all medical appointments while she’s pregnant. If the doctor says she has to come in, the employer has to let her go. And there’s childcare leave, for up to one year, or a year and two months if both parents take it. This leave is compensated at about 50 to 60 percent of pay. For children up to age 3, the mother can request shorter working hours, and a parent of a preschool child can request to be exempt from overtime. They also can take leave to take care of sick preschool children.

So, the real problems are not the laws, but the normative barriers. Both mothers and fathers are worried about placing a burden on their colleagues, because when the mother is on maternity leave and if the father takes paternity leave, their colleagues have to pick up their work. They feel very guilty about asking the colleagues to do that. The government has been trying to push men to take paternity leave, because, as I mentioned, the pattern is that women will take the maternity leave then about 70 percent of them will quit their jobs at the end of the maternity leave. They do this in part because, they feel that if they go back, it will perhaps not be a positive workplace environment, as everyone will complain about how they had to do the mother’s work while she was gone. There’s even a Japanese word “mata hara”, which comes from the English “maternity harassment” and refers to the situation in which women are working and it becomes obvious that they are pregnant, and they begin to get lots of comments like “oh so when are you going to quit?” This is illegal but it is happening. 

To deal with these challenges, the government has put forth several campaigns: the first, called ikumen, encourages men to take leave and to spend more time with their children. That’s been going on for quite some time. Most recently, as far as I know, Prime Minister Abe has put forth a plan he calls San Kyu-Papa - it’s a play on words. “San kyu-” is maternity leave and it also sounds like the Japanese pronunciation of “thank you”. The goal of this campaign is to have 80 percent of fathers take just a day or a half day off within 2 months of their wives giving birth. The fact that this campaign exists shows that men are not taking paternity leave. Men often don’t take it because they are concerned about how they’ll be viewed in the workforce. Japan’s economy is pretty tight, so they don’t want to risk getting a bad reputation in the workplace. The pressure for men to aid in child care has to move from the government to the companies. They need to incentivize the companies to allow their men who become fathers to take this paternity leave. That’s where there’s a gap. There is a lot of government rhetoric, but rates of taking paternity leave remain very low. 

The government also needs to provide more day care. It’s providing more day care than the past, and funding more day care, but still far less than what is needed. Also, there is a newly recognized issue with day care providers. Qualified people want to get a higher salary. So how do you recruit qualified people to be daycare providers?
Also, relating to things that constrain women from remaining in the workforce - every so often a politician will make some comment that is disparaging against women who expect the government to take care of their children and government pressure hasn’t been able to keep these loose cannons quiet. That doesn’t help.

Circling back to the issue about the maiden names: the government is issuing a new identification card, it’s called My Number. Everyone will have it, it’s kind of like our social security card. The government has just approved women adding their maiden names alongside their legal family names on their My Number identification card. So even though their legal name is still their married name, they can have their maiden name of this public document. This is encouraging, very encouraging. 

As far as further government policies go, the government could possibly develop more policies that enable grandparents to live with their children if both generations wish that to happen. Maybe the government could work harder to encourage companies to incorporate women and men who have temporarily left the workforce to take care of their families. And another thing the government might be able to do is to broker connections between localities of Japan that are actually looking for people to come and work there and families that would like to move there, and both husband and wife work. Recently, I read an article of an area in Japan in which there were a lot of traditional inns. The area was in need of employees, so they decided that they would reach out to single mothers and offer to provide accommodations. The mothers would potentially look after one another's children while the others worked at the hot springs. I don’t know how this has turned out, but it’s an example of new creative thinking as to how to match needs in employment sectors. 

Caroline Willian