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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