Baby Bust in Japan: Is the Personal Political?

Are young women in Japan on a wildcat baby strike? In 2005, for the first time since Japan began collecting population statistics in the late 1800s, the nation’s birth rate dropped below its death rate, marking a new low in the ongoing “baby bust,” which first came to public attention in 1990. The fewer children there are, the more crushing the weight of the health and pension systems are on each individual citizen. And a baby bust means not only fewer future workers, but also fewer future consumers to buy the products Japanese factories make.

Blame for this baby bust tends to fall on young women. In 1999, sociologist Masahiro Yamada described a generation of young people who live with their parents well into adulthood, spending their earnings on a new computer or a designer bag or a car. These “parasite singles” can be male or female, but in the popular image, it is the young women who are the ones rejecting the austerity of marriage and children, preferring conspicuous consumption. Mari Ozawa, a sociologist and women’s activist, noted in 2004 how deeply ingrained the link between the dropping birth rates and the social advancement of women had become in the popular imagination. She questioned the real basis for this link, which is a standard sociological explanation in industrialized nations, and also the frantic imperatives to “reverse the tide” of the declining birth rate, favoring an approach that tries to “navigate” the conditions of the baby bust. Others have emphasized that it is not women’s empowerment but a lack thereof that contributes to a decline in births. This refusal to reproduce suggests a deep dissatisfaction with contemporary Japanese society. Can this be read as a political refusal? How can one read a collective “tide” that is not based on collective action but on individual decisions?

“Lib” and Learn

In the absence of a mass movement one could call “feminist” in contemporary Japan, one has to work to find more modest and individual expressions of resistance. From consumer activism to the counterculture of cute, scholars interpret any expression of autonomy on the part of women as evidence of a political challenge.

The discipline of women’s studies in Japan has a fraught relationship with what one of its founders, Sumiko Iwao, called “overt feminism.” Iwao is involved with advising on government policy regarding gender equality, advocating a model of working with the state, rather than in opposition to it. She has argued that women in Japan gained many freedoms “quietly and unobtrusively, largely without the fanfare of an organized women’s movement or overt feminism.”

But this ignores the role of an organized, overtly feminist women’s movement, which also made it possible for women’s studies to enter academe. The postwar women’s movement in Japan developed a collective critique of Japanese capitalism, imperialism, and pa...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.