Where did all the babies go?

Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced that Japan’s total fertility rate (TFR) ? the average number of babies born to women during their reproductive years ? rose slightly to 1.34 for 2007, even though about 3,000 fewer children were born last year than in 2006. Two years ago the TFR was at 1.26, a postwar low, and last year this country experienced a natural population decline for the first time since 1899, when data-gathering in this area began. If fertility remains constant at these levels ? and projections for the next 50 years have it doing just that ? the population of each successive generation will fall at a rate of approximately 40 percent.

To address this concern, administrations have implemented a number of programs over the past two decades. In fact, the cost per month incurred by the government to fund day-care services in Tokyo for one infant currently exceeds the average monthly wage of a male worker in the capital.

But have you ever wondered how the fertility rate ended up dropping so low in the first place? Well, follow along with me to gain a better understanding of not only that, but also why one of the actions government has since taken appears to be biased against non-Japanese ? the very people who may be needed to reverse this trend and provide support for Japan’s rapidly aging society.

About half of employed married women work part-time, and about three-quarters of part-time workers are women. A large number of non-Japanese are also employed on fixed terms. Japan’s English-teaching industry, in effect, has been built on the backs of such labor. In fact, Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, estimates that 90 percent of non-Japanese in this country are employed as nonregular employees.

Fortunately, a revision to the Child-Care and Family-Care Leave Law was put in effect from April 2005, and this revision guarantees nonregular employees utilization of child-care leave under two conditions: First, the person must have been employed by his or her employer for a continuous period of at least one year; and second, the person must be “likely to be kept employed after the day on which his or her dependent child reaches one year of age,” according to the translation provided by the Cabinet Secretariat.

“Likely to be kept employed?” For those who may have trouble reading between the lines, this provision affords the employee absolutely no protection at all. Basically, this “law” is telling the employer: If you really want to allow your nonregular employee to take child-care leave, sure, go ahead; but hey, if you really don’t, no worries ? this “law” is not going to prohibit you from terminating his or her employment. For a country that needs a significant increase in its TFR, government would be wise to close this loophole.