June 1, 2010

PEDIATRICS TO GERIATRICS:

Where Are the Japanese Children? (Michael Thomas Cibenko, May 9-22, 2010, National Catholic Register)

During my time in Japan, I married a Japanese woman. When she thought she might be with child, we visited the local clinic. The doctor confirmed that she was indeed pregnant and asked, rather matter-of-factly, whether we wanted to keep the baby. That question left a lasting impression on me. The first time we saw our newborn was from behind the window of a postdelivery room containing 20 little beds. Only two of them were occupied.

A few weeks later, the government sent us about $3,000. I learned this was an incentive to encourage couples to have children. This fascinated me. Until then, I’d been oblivious to Japan’s low-birthrate crisis.

Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. My job required me to sometimes visit local kindergartens and day care centers, and the schools I visited were clearly built for larger numbers of children than were present. Sometimes the disparity was great. One nursery school I visited was built to accommodate 50 children. It had an enrollment of only eight.

Starker still was an elementary school built for a student population of about 100. I was astounded to discover, upon my first visit, only one student. The teacher explained that the school had to remain open until transportation arrangements could be made to bus the boy to a neighboring village. The teacher reminisced with sadness about a time when the school resounded with the sounds of children at play. My mind flashed back to the birth of my son and the 18 empty bassinets.

I would later attend a festival at which elders traditionally take turns calling out the names of babies born that year. That portion of the festival was very short and somewhat awkward, as there were dozens of senior citizens — and only three names for them to announce. [...]

According to a U.S. annual report, Japan’s population peaked in 2005 and will plunge from its current 127 million to 89 million in 2050. That’s a decline of 30%. The median age in Japan today is 43 years old, the highest in the world. The average age in Japan in 2050 is projected to be 61. An increasing number of Japanese leaders are looking for an easy way out of the dilemma of rapid societal aging — as evidenced by recommendations by the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine to allow euthanasia for the terminally ill.

On last year’s Children’s Day, the government noted that the number of children in Japan had declined for the 26th consecutive year. Over the past decade, more than 2,000 junior and senior high schools closed due to lack of students to teach. As I recently viewed a report on Japanese television stating that more than 60,000 teachers are unemployed, I couldn’t help but wonder if that teacher I met at the one-student school still had a job. That same program reported that nearly 100 children’s theme parks have closed in recent years and that more and more pediatricians are switching specialties to become geriatricians.

Since the 1920s, when Margaret Sanger traveled to Japan to promote contraception and sterilization, the Japanese have embraced the modern notion of “family planning.” One recent poll revealed that 70% of young Japanese single women have no intention of getting married because babies are simply “too much trouble.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2010 5:24 AM
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