Rising Sons—and Daughters

Japan, which has long fretted about its low birthrate, got limited good news in June, when the government reported that married couples had an average 1.37 kids last year, up from 1.34 in 2007 and the third straight rise from a record low 1.26 in 2005.

But as workers lose their jobs in the recession, the 2009 rate could drop. "Economic uncertainty and job insecurity have made people even less motivated to get married and have children than we had expected," says Shigeki Matsuda, a senior research director at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute, which last September polled 200 single and 600 married Japanese in their 20s and 30s. Half the singles polled in the much publicized survey said they want to wed but are reluctant to do so now. Among marrieds, some 80% with a child said they want another, with 90% saying the downturn makes that decision difficult.

Now, with citizens 65 and older on track to be 26% of the population by 2015, the government is moving anew to raise the birth rate. An economic stimulus package, approved two weeks ago, earmarks $37 billion for aid to parents with newborns and for new day-care centers. And the Minister of State for Social Affairs and Gender Equality, Yuko Obuchi (daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi), has endorsed a proposal made by Japan's leading business federation. The idea is to spend 1% of consumption tax revenues, or $25 billion, on efforts to produce more babies. (It's still unclear if the young Obuchi—who is pregnant with her second child—has the political chops to push through a program.)

Government and business have been dragging their feet for years on fixing some of the problems behind the low birth rate—a shortage of day-care centers, for instance. About 40,000 children are on waiting lists at public and private centers. And Mitsui and Sumitomo are among the few offering corporate day care.

Now some in business are trying harder. Panasonic (PC), Hitachi (HIT), and Nissan Motor (NSANY) are giving time off to employees needing fertility treatments. Sharp, NEC, and Canon (CAJ) grant low-interest loans or subsidies to women undergoing artificial insemination, treatments not covered under national health insurance. Some companies are even granting paternity leave. Meanwhile, marriage and children have become hot cultural topics. In May public TV's NHK aired a dramatic series about kon-katsu, or matchmaking. And Baby, Baby, Baby!, a film about a pregnant career woman, is a hit. Says Fumiko Oga, the movie's producer: "We wanted to inspire women who can't make up their minds about having a baby."

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