Japan has a sex problem.
People aren't having enough sex. Consequently, Japan isn't having nearly enough kids.
A reported 1,008,000 babies were born in Japan in 2015, while 1,302,000 people died. That's a net loss of almost 300,000 humans.
Compare that to Sweden, which is growing and has a high fertility rate for a developed country. In 2014, 110,907 babies were born and 88,976 people died, making for a gain of 21,931 people.
The downward and upward trends speak to the health of a country. In the case of Japan, a country with one of the world's largest economies, the population is set for a 'demographic time bomb' to explode.
By one highly cited estimation, a full 896 of Japan's towns and villages — or about half the total — are in danger of becoming extinct by 2040, and a disturbing "countdown clock" made by a team of economists is ticking off the seconds until the last Japanese person is born.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared that addressing the baby crisis is part of his economic policy. Last September, he said that the country will increase its fertility rate — basically the average number of children per mother — from 1.4 (where it's been for 25 years) to 1.8 children per women.
That's an "ambitious," if not "delusional," goal, according to Richard Jackson, president of the nonprofit research group Global Aging Institute. Only two countries have made that kind of jump: Sweden and Denmark.
If you look at developed economies around the world, Jackson says, their fertility rates tend to be near 2.0 (like France or the United States) or down below 1.5 (like Italy, South Korea, or Japan).
The real problem, according to Jackson, comes down to work-life balance.
Working women in Japan find it extremely hard to raise families.
Research from the Global Aging Institute has shown that developed countries with higher birthrates tend to have higher female labor force participation, meaning those countries are figuring out a better balance.
"To be a young professional advancing your career, you have to be prepared to stay late every night and then be prepared for drinking with your boss," Jackson says. "You can't have a couple where both members do that and also have small children, unless they're going to keep the daycare centers open until 11 o'clock at night or you're very affluent and can hire a fulltime nanny."
Skye Gould / Tech Insider
How do other countries do it?
There's the "nanny state" model, like in France and Sweden. In these countries, you have a job guarantee if you take a maternity leave (and gender equality in Sweden is engineered so that if the mother of a child takes maternity leave, the father has to take paternity leave for the second child). In France, the government will give you "family allowances" for having more children. And there's no social stigma for a mother of young children going back to work; the kids are expected to go to publicly funded crèche (or daycares) — it's part of a child's socialization.
And then there's the "flexible labor" model, like in the United States. Though there isn't the same state support, it's become culturally normalized US get the same benefits by making it easier to find ways to work, like with parttime work, the ability to go back to school, getting degrees online, or starting a new career. While there are opportunity costs, it's better than in Japan or South Korea, Jackson says, places where if you step off the career ladder, you don't get back on.
If Japan were to adopt either of these models, it might lean towards the European one, according to Jackson. The "flexible labor" model involves self-reinvention and individualism, which doesn't seem organic in a collectivist culture like Japan — and neither does the idea of temporarily stepping off the corporate ladder to have kids.
For that reason, the French or Danish model could be applied in Japan, but it would require both the public assistance of growing families — which Jackson refers to as "pronatal" policy — as well as government mandates to companies saying that they must provide paid maternity leave to mothers. Or, in the Swedish case, fathers.
In Japan, the government (and the culture) will have to enable women to have dual roles as professionals and as mothers.
It's a matter of life and death.