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Sunday
Feb052012

The "Problem" with Japan

   Whenever I hear politicians and commentators fret over Japan’s low birth rate and its implications for the viability of the pension system, I can’t help but ask the hell the country’s “leaders” have been doing for the past thirty years. When the pension system was set up, Japan still had a relatively young population where each retiree was supported by half a dozen or so workers paying into the pension scheme. As Japan developed and become wealthier, however, life expectancies were extended and the birthrate fell. In the mid ‘70s, the fertility rate fell below 2.0 for the first time, and the time implosion bomb started ticking. Although they knew the greying of Japan was going to become a major issue in the not so distant future, politicians—and I put most of the blame on the Liberal Democrats (LDP), today’s opposition party—did nothing to address it, letting the problem fester and worsen.

   At the wedding of my sister-in-law a decade ago a number of LDP bigwigs attended as the groom’s father had once been a Diet member back during the LDP’s heyday and was still active in local politics.

   Japanese wedding receptions are usually kicked off with a number of dull speeches given by bosses and other friends of the couple before the drinking begins, but at this particular reception a local politician made a long-winded speech in which he said, “We have put in place a number of policies such as the fūfu bessei (夫婦別姓), allowing you women to keep your maiden names after marriage, so what’s stopping you? Get married and have lots of children!”

   As if an attachment to one’s maiden name was the root of the issue. Feckin' eejit.

   If the politicians really want to address the issue they’ll need to do a number of things:

   One, support women who have more children by

      getting the economy back on its feet. There’s nothing like economic uncertainty to prevent a family from having a second or third child.

Triumph's "Dwindling Birth Rate Countermeasure" brassiere (少子化対策ブラ). Don't know about you, but it works for me!      improving the access to affordable daycare for working mothers. Daycare for anyone but the coddled civil servants and public employees who can enroll their children into publicly run day-care institutions more easily than others tends to be rather expensive. It can cost as much as ¥60-80,000 per month, or a quarter to half of a working mother’s salary.

      giving long-term financial support to families with young children, such as free healthcare, larger tax credits for those with children, grants for education, and so on. France did this, and has the highest birth rate among EU nations (save randy Ireland). It took twenty years, however, of continued support to get that birthrate up.

      encouraging Okamoto and other prophylactic makers to produce defective condoms that leak or tear easily, thereby increasing the number of unplanned pregnancies. In the event that these companies refuse to cooperate, then government officials should be armed with fine needles and discharged to neighborhood convenience stores where they will tamper with the condoms.

      encouraging immigration, yes, immigration. Real, long-term, permanent immigration. (More on this in a follow-up post)

   Two, get the country’s financial house in order by

      raising taxes on the wealthy and inheritance.

      raising the consumption tax gradually over the next ten years or so.

      raising the retirement age and age at which benefits kick in, and cutting benefits to the wealthy.

      reducing governmental waste (more on this below)

      lowering corporate taxes which are comparatively high and creating other incentives to encourage companies to keep manufacturing and jobs in Japan.

      scaling back on Koizumi reforms that made it easier for companies to rely on part-timers and contract workers and has brought down wages and standards for many in Japan. You can’t expect consumers to buy the crap your company produces if they don’t have the money to buy it or the security to plan for it.

      lowering property taxes to encourage the purchase of homes and condominiums.

      giving more autonomy to regional and local governments.

   Three, reduce government waste by

      eliminating the todôfuken (都道府県) system which divided Japan into prefectures that had been based loosely on the feudal system of the Edo period. The prefectures ought to be combined, creating half a dozen states or shû (州) or regional administrative blocks, such as Kyûshû-Okinawa, Shikoku, Chûgoku, Kansai, and so on. This will prevent much of the wasteful duplication of projects that have blighted the Japanese countryside with airports that are seldom used and museums that nobody in their right mind would ever visit. The mayor of Osaka, Tōru Hashimoto, and his Restoration Party (維新の会, Ishin no Kai) has been trying to do this with Ōsaka.

      giving these new regions more autonomy in and responsibility over how public money is raised and spent.

      breaking up the all too powerful and often inept bureaucracy.

      reducing the number of Diet members by at least half and putting in place term and age limits.

      ending the practice where a politician benefits financially for projects that he brings to his constituency. I am not a fan of pork barrel politics and think that politicians should be forbidden from voting in favor funding projects for his constituency because of conflict of interest. The politician should, however, be able to vote against those projects which go against the wishes and needs of his constituents.

 

   I could go on and on, but then, what does it matter to me? I’m just a stupid gaijin.

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