When Japanese Women Should Have Hollered "No! And Here’s Why"

Japanese women, known the world over for their apparent submissive docility, have changed their homeland’s social structure in a “silent revolution” so profound, it threatens the future of the nation. And they have done it in a uniquely female way — by declining to have children.

For the last 30-plus years of steadily dropping birth-rate figures, young women have confounded experts’ predictions by reducing them so much that Japan’s population is now declining for the first time in its history. With its reliance on labor intensity and a cultural reluctance to admit immigrants, the economic consequences of a dwindling society pose huge problems for the country.

The number of births fell last year to 1.25 per female nationwide and beneath 1.0 in Tokyo. This is drastically below the required “replacement” figure of 2.07 — in a nation whose women in the early 1950s gave birth to nearly 3.75 babies per female. The plunge also threatens the action of statistical compounding, as less women reaching fertility age give birth to even less children in each generation.

Significantly, the rate began to drop more sharply in the 1970s, when Japanese women began making substantial gains in higher education, job-seeking and careers, and personal freedom. However — and this is the crucial point the Japanese government now only begins to grasp — women have not been making similar gains of child-rearing equality, in which men traditionally take almost no part.

Women decided either not to have any children, or only one, or to abandon their jobs entirely when they gave birth. Their unwanted dilemma arose because Japan did not, and still does not, adjust for women’s new stance: their desire to combine both a career and raising children. Some critics were openly hostile, calling Japanese young women who stayed home while pursuing a career “parasite singles.” This confrontation maybe one reason for feminine silence.

Yet it also combined with Japan’s traditional female attitude: obedient devotion to home and family while husbands worked “outside” in jobs with exhaustingly long hours. In white-collar commuter homes this arrangement meant almost entirely separate lives. With the 1970s and more money, travel, university, interesting new jobs, and increased entertainment and leisure appealing to both genders, Japanese women changed as they increasingly rejected their expected role.

However, their silent revolution contains a crucial lesson for women everywhere. Although the quiet abstention from natal expectations has shocked Japan’s entrenched male establishment by its relentless and rapid increase, overall gains of women could have been even more dramatic — had they been less silent.

Mass action with outspoken protest is still the most effective means of progress, the examples here show.

Sociologists and political scientists studying birth decrease use the word “exit” to describe the drastic figures in Japan — and some other traditionally male-dominant and economically successful nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Italy. But as “exit” implies, it means that women just quit doing what is expected of them, without necessarily making a fuss or offering what the same academics describe as “voice.”

One who has studied this and written a new book about it, Race for the Exits: The Unraveling of Japan’s System of Social Protection (Cornell University Press 2006), is Leonard Schoppa, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. He differs from others by making the new point that while silent rebellion can be effective — especially in massive numbers over a very short time — the quieter, steadier method may actually be counter-productive for the protesters.

As Japan’s deliberately childless women mutely rejected their expected fecundity, their behavior brought little concern. For years, demographers in Tokyo either under-estimated the future decline in birth figures, or predicted falsely that it was temporary and would resume for various reasons. It did not, but decades passed before the full significance sank in.

One reason, ironically, was the silence. Women offered no public reasons for their new refusal to make families; there was no mass movement (feminists remained preoccupied with other issues); and no debate appeared in the media — no “voice.” The main reason for this was that the very women most likely to make their opinions known, had already decided to forego public protest.

Deliberately or not, they removed the reasons for their action by their own inaudible departure. Nobody in a position to comment publicly realized what was happening. Had the women held “anti-babies” mass rallies, written in the media, made speeches, created publicity, and thus thrust the question into public debate, Japan would have awoken to their dissatisfaction much sooner.

The slow pace of change and reform in Japan in meeting women’s new requirements was “a product of exit dynamics,” Schoppa argues, which “have allowed women who might have fought for change to escape…from the difficulty of combining work and family.”

Yet in one case where Japanese women did act publicly, they achieved remarkably quick success, Schoppa points out, because this time there was no exit.

As births fell, Japan’s proportion of the elderly correspondingly rose, putting new burdens on society’s responsibility for the frailer aging citizens. But whose job was it to look after them? Women’s, of course, in a society where jokes abound about wives’ having to care for sick mothers-in-law as well as their own parents.

However, whereas women could avoid having babies, they could not avoid parents’ growing older. From this there was no option to quit; only change. The result was the Long-term Care Insurance program launched in 1997, the first new social insurance Japan had created since the 1960s. This scheme for nursing, day care and home care for the elderly is now among the best in the world, and it was achieved in less than a decade.

But it did need mass movement. As women felt increasingly trapped in state expectations of their voluntary free care for the old, they began to protest. In the late 1980s a feminist organization, the Women’s Association for Improving an Aging Society, grew rapidly, recruiting full-time housewives as well as working women including journalists, academics, and politicians. They publicized the “care-giving hell” that many women suffered, and demanded respite.

In 1989 they and fellow feminine groups proposed a national scheme, and by 1995 a detailed, publicly funded plan was drawn up. When conservative politicians countered that the elderly’s female relatives should be paid cash-for-care, feminists argued vociferously that this would merely perpetuate the gender division of labor. Opinion polls showed huge national support; then came the 1997 parliamentary approval of the insurance plan as devised.

Now, Japan is faced with trying to improve inadequate conditions still prevailing over child-birth and raising the young. Little has been achieved for decades in changing the expectation that women will do all the work for nothing. Could it be too late before social catastrophe?

Schoppa points out that similar dynamics of exit and decline are hurting the economy and Japan’s famously protective employment-for-life system. More people may start to quit in more areas, precipitating a crisis. Although he does not say so specifically, the changes required clearly need many people’s voices in mass protest.

For any significant social progress, protest politics and mass movements are as necessary these days as ever.

CHRISTOPHER REED, a British freelance journalist who lives in Japan, may be contacted at hristopherreed@earthlink.net