A number of our female speakers (at ETIC, Aeru and Impact Hub Tokyo) spoke about this issue. They identified the high cost of child-rearing, demanding work hours and the increasing number of women in the workforce as significant factors causing the fall in birthrate, and expressed their desire to create a "space" to support mothers and childcare. For example, one social entrepreneur created fitness classes designed for postpartum support, while another focused on nursery care that would enable mothers to continue working.
A quick Google search on child-rearing and motherhood in Japan led to a greater understanding of her point. Although young Japanese women are an important part of the workforce, the ideal of “ryo-sai ken-bo” (good wife, good mother) is still prevalent: this means that women are still expected to perform the entirety of household chores, even if they maintain full-time employment (resulting in what sociologists Duncombe and Marsden (1995) term the "triple-shift"), and are expected to quit their careers upon giving birth in order to care for their child.
This leads me to wonder: How effective will shorter working hours and better nurseries have, if every woman taking advantage of them is societally perceived as not fulfilling her role as a mother properly?
It seems that at this point, Japanese women are faced with two extremes: either not have children and devote themselves to their careers, or become mothers and devote themselves exclusively to their children. Faced with such a choice, is it surprising that more and more women are choosing not to give birth?
The solution, perhaps, lies in an alteration of cultural expectations, so that the ideal mother is no longer the one who quits her job in order to care for her child, but on the contrary, the one who manages to strike a healthy equilibrium between family and career.
Similarly, perhaps it is time for the ideal man in Japanese society to no longer be one who works 12-hour days and spends his nights in capsule lodgings and business hotels before heading back to work the next day, but rather one who partakes in family life and home responsibilities.
As our discussion addressed, however, it is never an easy feat to alter cultural expectations, especially when they are so latent.
One possibility is to harness Japan's reverence of pop idols (as our conversation touched upon, even government schemes are now relying upon them for influence!) in order to re-think concepts of maternity and family. Perhaps one or two role models could go a long way.
Any more ideas? We'd love to hear them in the comments section below!
Nikhita Obeegadoo is a Stanford student (Class of 2016), from Mauritius, pursuing a double major in Literature and Computer Science. As a participant of this year's Impact Abroad: Japan program, she offers us her thoughts from Day 3 of the journey.