Forbes has reported that Japan’s population has fallen for the first time in 2005. The Japanese government is calling the falling population “a ‘turning point’ that will force the economy to adapt to a rapidly aging society.” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Jiro Kawasaki said that counter-measures must be taken to counter the falling birth rate, along with “measures to support and foster our future generations.”
This falling birth rate should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the issue in Japan for the past year. This article from Foreign Policy [Author's note: You need to be a subscriber of Foreign Policy to read the article. It's also available at this link. Scroll down to read it.] described the growing dissatisfaction Japanese women have about their second-class status and dreadful treatment when it comes to marriage — dissatisfaction so pronounced that many of them have chosen to forgo marriage and childbearing. Japanese wives are expected to shoulder the household chores, wait on their husbands (including peeling his apples for him), and raise the kids. Japanese men poo-pooed their complaints, calling them “the twittering of birds.”
This portion of the article caught my attention:
[Author Yoko] Haruka, a witty, 30-something essayist and television personality from Osaka, describes with clarity and biting humor the exasperation of Japanese womanhood in two recent books – collections of eminently readable essays called Kekkon Shimasen! (I Won’t Get Married!) and Hybrid Woman .
Haruka begins I Won’t Get Married! by describing her treatment at her own father’s funeral: She was told to sit and to walk behind her five brothers – younger as well as older – and made to understand that she wasn’t wanted on the receiving line to greet relatives and family friends.
Haruka warmly admires her sister-in-law, who must put up with endless verbal abuse from her eldest brother, and her mother, who lives with them. The sister-in-law manages to smile self-effacingly even as she scurries to provide for their material needs, right down to putting a cold beer in her husband’s hand as he steps out of his nightly bath. Haruka is exasperated by a favorite aunt who talks about her search for an “ordinary woman” to be her daughter-in-law. What the aunt means is a woman who will gladly make do with the 200,000 yen (less than $1,800) a month her son brings home, and who has no aspirations of her own.
Shortly before finding this article, I read a plea from an Indian wife who was at her wit’s end dealing with her husband’s family. She had been married for six years. Two years ago, her brother-in-law moved in . Her in-laws “visited” for six months last year. Compare what she wrote to Haruka’s comments.
My mother in law was a disaster. She would constantly degrade me, try to separate me from my son, and make all sort of bizarre allegations. For her, only she was the best at everything. She would tell me that her family would eat no less that 5 dishes at any one time. Her food was being provided courtesy of my husband paycheck, no less. She was an aloof, manipulative, and user of people’s money. She brainwashed my husband, and make sure he was on her side.
My husband and I are amicable 2 days out of the month now, the other 28/29 days we fight. Mostly about his brother, who is lazy, doesn’t pay any bills, doesn’t like working as a shoe stock person, doesn’t EVER cook or clean up the house, his room smells like crap…etc. etc. After the blackout this past summer, I came home exhausted, my sisters were with me and we all started cooking, my brother-in-law sat in the living room reading the paper. Is that annoying or what? He does that often, just stays in his room, until food is ready. I don’t want to be the “bitch” so I don’t say anything. I wait for my husband to do it (which RARELY happens). My b-i-l also goes to school part-time, so that is his contribution to society. Plagiarism rarely crosses his mind. He is also very defensive if I ever tell him he did something wrong. He doesn’t get it that people in this country respect their privacy. People in this country work hard. I held a full-time job and went to school full-time, and would come home and help my mom cook and clean. All my brother-in-law knows his how to sleep, eat, and smoke. He is a male chauvinist. It is disgusting and very unfair.
In Indian culture, the eldest son (this woman’s husband) is traditionally responsible for supporting his family. As always in these cases, the brunt of the work falls on the women. I have learned that this sort of abyssmal treatment of wives is not unusual in Indian and Asian cultures. The Domestic Violence Hotline will refer South and South East Asian women in these situations to services that will help them. The Hotline also provides free translators for up to 150 languages.
A Washington Post article described how Japanese wives are sick of waiting on their elderly husbands hand and foot. Sixty-three year old Sakura Terakawa described “her four decades of married life in a small urban apartment as a gradual transition from wife to mother to servant. Communication with her husband started with love letters and wooing words under pink cherry blossoms. It devolved over time, she said, into mostly demands for his evening meals and nitpicking over the quality of her housework.”
The article continued: “So when he came home one afternoon three years ago, beaming, and announced he was ready to retire, Terakawa despaired. “‘This is it,’ I remember thinking. ‘I am going to have to divorce him now,’” Terakawa recalled. “It was bad enough that I had to wait on him when he came home from work. But having him around the house all the time was more than I could possibly bear.”
His retirement cut him off from his office social network, leaving him for the most part alone with his wife. Within a few weeks, the situation had worsened. “[Terakawa's husband] was hardly leaving the house, watching television and reading the newspaper — and barking orders at her. He often forbade her to go out with her friends. When he did let her go, Terakawa said, she had to prepare all his meals before leaving.”
With that kind of treatment, it’s no wonder that a Japanese poll conducted in February 2005 found that most single Japanese women “prefer not to marry and believe they can live happily alone for the rest of their life”. The article in the link had mentioned Japan’s falling birth rate. It said that “[t]he country’s fertility rate – the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime – fell to 1.29 in 2003, the lowest in the post-World War II period.” The article also cited reasons for the falling birthrate: “higher education levels, changing attitudes toward marriage and individual freedom, the high financial burden of child rearing, and the hardships involved for working women given long hours on the job and a persistent dearth of daycare.”
If Japan wants to improve its birth rate, it’s going to have to improve the lives of the women who will give birth to those babies.