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July 24, 2006

Japanese Need to Re-examine Their Views on Affluence

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Despite nation's wealth, many discontented, negative about future; birthrate decline due to high cost of raising kids, later marriage

Japan is admittedly one of the most affluent societies in the world. In terms of gross domestic product, it ranks second after the U.S., with per capita income ranking around fifth internationally. Yet compared with other countries in both the industrialized and developing worlds, a remarkably high percentage of people feel discontented with life and pessimistic about the future.

A matter of major concern is the declining population which began to fall in 2005, sooner than predicted. Except during the war years in the 1940s, Japan's population since the mid-19th century (when reliable statistics became available) has never registered a decline. The fall in population is now of great concern to the nation, although it is ironic that half a century ago, right after the war, population growth was perceived to be the problem.

According to demographic forecasts, the population is likely to fall for a long time to come. Public debate about the causes and ways to slow the decline, as well as how to prepare for the shrinking population, is already under way.

Later marriages, fewer kids

While it appears to be a complicated phenomenon, factors cited include women's growing reluctance to get married and their tendency to postpone marriage to later in life, as well as married couples choosing to have fewer children than before.

The real problem, of course, is what lies behind these trends. Aside from the employment situation that compels women - as well as men to some extent - to make such choices, it is fashionable to ascribe such trends to a bleak social climate that does not provide people with a bright outlook for the future, leaving them unwilling to start a family.

Among the stark economic realities cited as a reason for having fewer children, or even no children at all, is the high cost of raising them, especially the cost of education. A recent survey by a government institution of some 8,000 married couples found that the average number of children desired was 2.48, but that the average number of children per couple was 2.11.

The difference was explained by the huge cost of raising children and putting them through college - on average 23.7 million yen ($208,000) per child, about half of which is educational expenses. The average annual household income is currently 5 million yen and the costs of education were cited by 56% of the respondents as a reason for not having many children.

A survey by the Cabinet Office comparing Japan with the U.S., Sweden, France and South Korea also found that parents here topped the list when it came to not wanting any more children.

The cost of education is a particularly heavy burden, which includes not just regular school fees, but the added expense of sending kids to cram schools and paying for other extracurricular activities.

However, it is strange that despite the financial burden, whether the quality of education at Japanese schools and colleges justifies such expenditure is not seriously questioned. A majority of parents continue to send their children for higher education (more than 50% of 18 year-olds go on to college and another 20% attend post-high school vocational institutions) in the belief that a college diploma provides a passport to a better life.

According to a survey of high school students in Japan, the U.S. and China conducted by the Japan Youth Research Institute, Japanese adolescents are markedly negative about their lives, their future and their country.

The results show that 23.8% of Japanese adolescents thought their future was bright, compared to 45.8% for Americans and 33.8% for Chinese. Those who regarded their future as "not so good" or "bad" accounted for 16.2% of the total, compared to 1.5% for the U.S. and 5.5% for China.

Asked about one important thing in their lives, the percentage of Japanese youths who cited "working hard" was 13.9%, as compared to 28.0% for the Americans and 34% for the Chinese. In a related question, 50.7% of Japanese respondents chose "enjoying the present moment" rather than working hard to prepare for the future, compared to 39.7% for Americans and 19.5% for Chinese.

The percentage of Japanese youths who do not feel proud of their country totaled 48.3%, compared with 27.1% of Americans and 20.3% of Chinese.

What should we make of this sense of economic and social insecurity in one of the most affluent societies in the world? The lingering effects of the prolonged slump in the economy during the 1990s have certainly harmed the employment prospects of young people. But that does not explain the whole story.

Perceptions of affluence

Some Japanese are inclined to question whether the country's affluence is not merely superficial, in contrast to Europe and the U.S., where people seem to enjoy their lives in a more relaxed atmosphere. The divergence is often attributed to differences in social and cultural environment. To some extent that may be true, but what matters most seems to be the different way in which affluence is evaluated.

The Japanese preoccupation with material well-being in the postwar period led people to lose interest in non-economic matters. Some now feel poor or hard-pressed in the midst of an affluent society.

A more spiritual approach is not the answer. Most important is how to make the best use of affluence. It is often said nowadays that the Japanese should value culture as a way of life. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone advocates that Japan should become a nation of cultural superiority. For this to happen, Japanese people must reorient their way of life and outlook, adopting a calm and confident attitude in the use of the affluence they have built.

(Originally appeared in the July 17, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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