An Empty Future?

For a generation of singles, living life to the fullest could spell the end of life.

It’s difficult for Kokura Yukari not to feel special at school. That’s because Yukari, who attends Yabukawa Elementary School in northeastern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, is the only student in her school. In the 1960s, more than one hundred students attended the school. Today, the second-grader spends most of her school days alone with her teacher, Motomiya Masaki. Masaki is nothing if not a gamer. She tries “to teach as if there were 30 kids in the class.” But there aren’t and the reason why isn’t limited to Japan.

Twice a week, Kokura travels to another school a few miles away for physical education and music classes. It must feel like a trip to Tokyo for her, having to share a school with four other kids. While five kids between two schools may seem extreme — okay, it is extreme — it’s not incredible, at least not to the Japanese. What the Washington Post called Japan’s “national child shortage” has forced the closing of more than 2000 schools in the past ten years and another 300 per year are scheduled to close between now and 2007. It isn’t only schools that are feeling effects of the “national child shortage.” Department stores have replaced rooftop playgrounds with cafes, and villages like Nishiki in northern Japan have been forced to merge with other municipalities.

As “national child shortage” implies, the culprit in these closings is Japan’s low birthrate: 1.29 births per woman. The rate required to maintain a stable population, what demographers call “replacement level,” is 2.1 births per woman. Japan’s low birthrate, coupled with its aversion to immigration, is causing its overall population to both shrink — from 128 million this year to 101 million in 2050 — and get older: Japan has a higher percentage of people over the age of 65 than any other country.

Thirty years of anti-natalist rhetoric, mostly couched in environmentalist terms, may have you thinking: “What’s the problem? There are already too many people.” Kota Murase, Japan’s Deputy Education minister described the problem to the Post: “a nation requires a certain scale in the population to continue its momentum … [I]n Japan … [as a result of the] combination of a low birthrate and an aging nation … our pension system is already being tested to its limits. And with fewer young people in society, the question is: How are we going to sustain the elderly and the nation’s future?”

In other words, Japan’s “national child shortage” threatens not only Japan’s prosperity but its very existence, as well. It’s gotten so bad that many Japanese elderly are substituting sophisticated dolls, called “Yumel,” for the kids that don’t visit and the grandchildren they don’t have. These dolls, which are being marketed as “healing partners” for the lonely elderly, come with a 1200-phrase vocabulary, including questions like “why do elephants have long noses?”

While the dolls are uniquely Japanese, the problem isn’t. Western Europe is going through a similar birth dearth, one that also threatens its identity. Several countries, including Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic, have even lower birthrates than Japan and the European Union’s birthrate as a whole is only slightly higher than Japan’s.

Realizing that falling birth rates threaten the prosperity these nations worked so hard to create after World War II, they are left with two choices, according to Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle: increase the birthrate or increase immigration. The former has proven to be easier said than done. Countries have tried almost everything (I’ll get back to that “almost”) to increase their birthrates: tax breaks, government subsidies and, my personal favorite, dating services. (Singapore has a government agency, the “Social Development Unit,” that organizes “speed dates,” “zodiac dates” and “library dates” in the hopes of reversing the island state’s population decline.) So far, the birth dearth has proven resistant to government prodding.

This leaves European countries with little choice but to increase immigration to support their social welfare programs. But this choice isn’t without its risks: in the Netherlands’ four largest cities, the children of Islamic immigrants make up the majority of children under 14. In Brussels, the capitol of the European Union, Muhammad and Osama are the two most popular names given to baby boys.

While most of the immigrants and their children want nothing more than a better life, the recent killing of controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh has the famously tolerant Dutch saying “enough already.” It isn’t only the Dutch: Denmark and Sweden, two other countries synonymous with “live and let live,” are also seeing a backlash against their mostly Islamic immigrants. Regardless of whether the backlash is warranted or an outburst of xenophobia, what you need to remember is why the immigrants are there in the first place: Europe’s birth dearth.

(In case you’re wondering, the U.S. birth rate is at exactly replacement level. But this is largely an artifact of high immigration rates. Immigrant women, both here and in Europe, have more children than their native-born counterparts. Thus, an estimated seven percent of all births in the United States are to women born in Mexico.)

Which brings me back to that “almost.” What’s often missing from otherwise accurate portrayals (such as The Empty Cradle) of the problems created by falling birth rates is an appreciation for the role that beliefs — and the culture they produce — have played in creating the problem. While economic incentives influence our decisions about having children, that influence isn’t as important as our beliefs about children. That’s why low birth rates resist incentives and government match-making.

These beliefs say that children, instead of being the reason that we work hard to get ahead, are an impediment to getting ahead. Children and their needs are an obstacle to be overcome, or at least managed, in our quest for the “good life.” We may not say this in so many words but our actions shout it. We increasingly plan on having children in a way that differs only in degree, not in kind, from the way we plan for retirement or a sabbatical. All three are contingent on having enough time and money to pull them off in a way that is consistent with what we consider the good life.

To put it differently, childbirth and children accommodate themselves to our aspirations, not vice-versa. What the Associated Press said about the young Japanese, that they value “careers and lifestyles over the pressures of having children and taking care of their parents,” is also true of us.

This idea lies behind something I recently read by Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor of Slate magazine. She was writing about pharmacists who, for religious reasons, refuse to fill prescriptions for the “morning-after pill.” In the article she called an “unwanted pregnancy” a “fairly profound violation of self.” Not a “stressful situation” or even a “crisis” but a “violation of self” and a “fairly profound” one at that — the same language often used to describe sexual assaults.

Never mind that most of the people who have ever lived were the product of “unwanted” pregnancies — in the sense that the mother didn’t intend to get pregnant and for 99 percent of human history couldn’t do anything about it. At best, Lithwick’s language suggests a “fairly profound” discontinuity between the child’s interests and that of its mother. Consistent with the logic of “choice,” the value of children lies in what they do for our sense of well-being and satisfaction. They “complete us” and have no value or meaning independent of that which we assign to them.

And even if we want them, our neighbors may not. Every family I know with three or more kids has stories about being upbraided by complete strangers for having “too many” children. People who, for all we know, can’t keep their plants from dying, have the chutzpah to call my friends “irresponsible” when, of course, the opposite is true.

But as the people of Iwate Prefecture and the rest of Japan are learning, societies that neglect and even despise their future wind up without one. In her novel, The Children of Men, P.D. James describes a future world where no child has been born in 26 years. In this world without children, dolls and pets are the object of women’s maternal attention. (Sound familiar?) Yet this world that lives knowing it is the last generation of humans still insists on ways that will only hasten their extinction. (Sound familiar?)

James never explains why there are no children being born — as if to underscore that their problem (and ours) isn’t a lack of knowledge. What’s lacking is respect for life. That lack of respect blinds us to where the future really lies: not in our careers and lifestyles but in the cradle and the classroom.

Copyright 2005 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Roberto Rivera y Carlo writes from his home in Alexandria, Va.