Companies Should Make More Serious Efforts to Address Low Birth Rate

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A baby is sleeping in a bed at a pediatric clinic in Tokyo in October.

A year has passed since Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced “unprecedented measures” to address the nation’s low birth rate. The measures, which were finally decided in December after much debate, mainly over financial resources, seem a bit small-scale to be called “unprecedented.” However, awareness has clearly spread more widely than ever over the past year that Japan’s declining birth rate is a crisis that could shake the nation’s future.

Japan’s total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman is estimated to give birth to in her lifetime — has been below the level required to maintain a stable population for the past 50 years. Various trends have been analyzed as factors behind the decline, including changes in social structure and economic situations. But could changes in people’s attitudes toward having children and parenting also be behind the decline?

To find out, a group of reporters that I am part of has been running a series of articles titled “Shoshika: Watashi no Riaru” (Low birth rate: My reality) in Japanese in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Lifestyle section since last May, in which people, mainly those who are raising children, speak frankly about what they feel and think about parenting in Japan. The articles have been published once a month in principle, and we have interviewed about 100 people so far.

What emerged from the interviews were the difficulties women face in raising children and their frustration over the responsibility being unevenly distributed to them. While it is true that most of the interviewees were women, none of the male interviewees or men who wrote to us about the articles said they were raising their children alone because their wives were busy with work. In contrast, many of the women did say they were raising their children alone because their husbands were busy with work.

For example, a 37-year-old mother and company employee in Tokyo is currently on parental leave to raise her two young daughters, but her husband, who works in the financial sector, “goes to the office on the first train [of the day] and comes home on the last train.”

“I often talk to my children’s pediatrician [instead of my husband] about parenting issues,” she said.

A 38-year-old mother in Kanagawa Prefecture, who is also a company employee, said her systems engineer husband used to “work late nights and on weekends” when their first child was a toddler about 10 years ago. She was also a systems engineer at that time, but she had to give up the job, which she loved, to take care of their child.

And a 40-year-old mother of three children has moved to Hokkaido due to her husband’s job transfer. He is rarely home on weekdays and is sometimes away even on weekends, so she takes care of the children almost alone. “Weekday nights are especially hectic. I cook, feed the children and bathe them. I need another adult hand,” she said.

These women’s stories highlight an unequal division of childcare responsibility that is also evident in statistical data. According to a survey in 2021 by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry of married couples with children under 6, husbands spend an average of about two hours a day on housework and childcare, while wives spend about 7½ hours.

Of course, most husbands do not work overtime voluntarily. In many workplaces across the country, the culture encourages working long hours. A 38-year-old father and company employee in Tokyo, who took nine months of parental leave two years ago and has tried to work as little overtime as possible since then, said two junior colleagues were promoted past him.

Currently, only about 17% of men take parental leave. The government’s measures put particular emphasis on improving that to 85% by 2030, by expanding parental leave benefits to ease the childcare responsibilities on women. However, hearing about the Tokyo man’s experience shows it will not be so easy to achieve the goal. Besides, parenting does not end with several months or a year of parental leave.

Reviewing the articles, I think not only the government but also companies should make greater contributions to dealing with the country’s population problem. They should reduce the working hours of their employees, allow them to work remotely and allow them to work early in the morning instead of at night, so that balancing work and family becomes a little easier.

Haruka Shibata, a 45-year-old father of three daughters and a sociology professor at Kyoto University who studies theories of happiness, says introducing more flexible work styles should be prioritized in Japan’s efforts to address the declining birth rate. Shibata cites research showing that in Scandinavian countries and France, where there is extensive support for parent-friendly work arrangements including flexible working-hour systems and paid leave, the level of happiness is relatively high and does not decline even after having children, while in the United States and Australia, where there is not much support, the level of happiness is relatively low and declines further after having children. He also said that countries with higher levels of national happiness tend to have higher birth rates.

Considering how remote work surged during the pandemic, only to fade away afterward, it can be said that companies do not voluntarily promote flexible work styles.

“In Japan’s case, it would be effective to revise the Labor Standards Law, such as by increasing the wage premium rate for overtime work. It would also be effective to make the ‘interval system’ mandatory,” Shibata said. The system was designed to secure a certain length of time between when workers go home and when they return to work the next day, but companies now are only obliged to “make efforts” to have the system. If the government shows its seriousness by revising the law, then the companies will also be more serious about reducing working hours. Revising the law may entail serious side effects such as increasing bankruptcy and unemployment, so the government should offer support for companies to increase the efficiency of their operations, such as by promoting digitization. “If working hours are reduced through these efforts, men will be able to take on more childcare and housework responsibilities, and women will be more inclined to marry. If marriage increases, it will push up the birth rate,” Shibata said.

Companies need to think more about their future benefits. The decrease in the young population is already having a significant impact, such as labor shortages, on corporate activities and will lead to economic stagnation and market contraction in the future. There are good reasons for companies to make efforts to address the declining birth rate.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Ikuko Higuchi

Ikuko Higuchi is a staff writer in the Lifestyle News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.