Last year, an arresting headline on page three of Tokyo’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper read “Japan Heading for Extinction.”  The article bemoaned the contents of a government white paper addressing Japan’s declining birthrate.

The average number of babies born to a Japanese woman during her reproductive years dropped to a record low of 1.28 in 2004, continuing a downward trend that started in the early 1980’s.  The number of babies born in Japan in 2004 is estimated at 1,107,000, the lowest figure since the nation’s demographic statistics were first published in 1899.  The National Institute of Population and Social Security projects a drop in Japan’s population from 125 million in 2004 to 100 million by 2056.

The government white paper is full of gloomy statistics pointing to the dire social and economic consequences a declining population will have on the nation.  There are now 25 million Japanese aged 65 or older, accounting for 20 percent of the total population, and their ranks are swelling yearly.  The pension and national health-insurance systems face an impending breakdown as expenditures on the graying population outstrip income from a shrinking labor force.

Over the past ten years, the government has spent tens of billions of dollars on measures aimed at halting the declining birthrate, but to no avail.  Most of the funds have gone toward promoting maternity leave and expanding nursery-school and daycare facilities, so that working women can bear children and still hold their jobs.  New proposals aim at easing the burden on mothers by cutting the overtime hours of wage earners who put in more than 60 hours per week and requiring workers to take at least 55 percent of the paid leave they are entitled to every year.  (Yes, the peer pressure of the company environment keeps most Japanese workers from “deserting” their colleagues in order to take personal leave time.)

There are also calls to increase economic assistance to families struggling with the costs of rearing children.  Local governments already offer substantial subsidies to parents of children born within their jurisdiction to defray the costs of childbirth, plus monthly stipends for each child during the first two to three years of life.  Most localities even reimburse all medical expenses not covered by insurance until the child reaches school age.  (Even foreign residents are eligible for these benefits.)  Yet, in spite of these incentives, couples continue to shun the burdens of parenthood.

Indeed, marriage continues to be delayed ever longer.  The average age for first marriages reached new highs in 2003, rising to 29.4 for men and 27.6 for women.  Young women especially are in no hurry to take wedding vows, and they choose older, more financially stable partners when they do decide to tie the knot, forcing men to wait longer than they might otherwise.

It is not that young women are interested in the pursuit of a “career”; they are reluctant to trade an affluent lifestyle for the hardships of young family life.  So-called parasite singles often continue to live at home well past the age of 30.  While mom takes care of the laundry and housekeeping, they enjoy the benefit of free or low-cost room and board and maintain a high disposable income to spend on leisure travel and designer goods.

The disinclination to change from dependent to wife and mother is reinforced by the negative model many of these women have seen in the marriages of their parents.  Often, marital relationships decay or dissolve as absentee fathers wed to the company leave mothers to shoulder the burdens of homemaking and child rearing alone.  The pressures only increase after retirement, when a man suddenly finds himself at home with a woman who has built a life of her own around her children, her friends, and her hobbies, and who is not interested in spending time with a husband who wasn’t there when she needed him.

The divorce rate climbed to 2.25 per 1,000 population in 2003, still well below the 4.0 rate for the United States but a significant change in a society that has traditionally viewed divorce as a shameful failure that brings dishonor to the families involved.  For the reasons cited above, the figure has risen most rapidly among older couples: According to the Ministry of Health, between 1973 and 1997, the number of divorces per year among couples married for more than 30 years jumped more than eightfold, while the overall number of divorces doubled.

Of course, these figures do not take into account the phenomenon of “home divorce,” wherein husbands and wives live separate lives while continuing to share living quarters for the sake of financial advantages and wider family harmony.  It is understandable that daughters are not eager to sign up for a similar arrangement.

Another factor contributing to the reluctance to have children is a growing sense of anxiety about how they will turn out.  Breakdowns in classroom discipline, school bullying, teenage suicides, and widely publicized incidents of juvenile crime have left many fearful about the prospect of rearing children in today’s social climate.

In June 2005, a series of incidents grabbed headlines and sent shock waves throughout Japanese society.  In Nagasaki, a 12-year-old boy assaulted his 11-year-old sister with a baseball bat and left her bleeding on the floor with a fractured skull and jaw.  In Yamaguchi, an 18-year-old high-school student tossed a bomb made of gunpowder and a glass bottle into a classroom, injuring 58 of his classmates.

In Fukuoka, a 15-year-old boy stabbed his 17-year-old brother ten times in the back, neck, and stomach with a kitchen knife, then drowned him in a bathtub.  And in Tokyo, a 15-year-old high-school student clubbed his father with a dumbbell and slashed his throat before stabbing his mother in the chest.  He then set off a gas explosion in their apartment in an attempt to cover up the gruesome murders.

Much subsequent media discussion focused on a search for common links that might give some insight into what could provoke these youths to erupt in such violent behavior.  Family tensions, school social problems, violent video games, and the easy availability of bomb-making information on the internet were all cited as contributing factors.  As no easily identifiable “cause” could be pinpointed, however, many parents confessed to feeling at a loss as to what to do to safeguard their own children.

Perhaps surprisingly, the primary worry of most is not that their children will become victims of violence but that they will turn into perpetrators.  Among Japanese young people, traditional Confucian respect for authority has all but dissolved in the solvent of nihilistic and hedonistic global youth culture, pervasively disseminated through the entertainment media.  Parents feel powerless to teach or enforce moral standards that have been stripped of any religious, philosophical, or cultural grounding.  In this climate, parenting can appear a risky business.

In spite of these social factors, the government continues to view the low-birthrate problem as an economic one and tries to address it with economic solutions.  But why should it be necessary to bribe people to enter into the joys of parenthood?  Becoming a parent has always entailed sacrificing time, material goods, personal interests, and ambitions for the sake of one’s children.  Most humans throughout history have thought the sacrifice worthwhile.  It appears that few Japanese today are inclined to make it.

Life expectancy in Japan is 85.33 years for women, 78.36 years for men (as of 2003).  These numbers are higher than ever in Japan’s history—and higher than anywhere else in the world.  Likewise, the standard of living is extremely high compared with earlier periods and with other nations.  It is difficult to believe that rearing children in today’s affluent Japanese society is really more burdensome than in past generations when life was much harder or than in poor nations where the birthrate is much higher.

A society that lacks the will to perpetuate itself exhibits symptoms of a grave spiritual illness, a suicidal tendency that verges on a collective death wish.  Too many Japanese young people lack both the confidence and the desire to take on the challenges and responsibilities of parenthood.  Some view children as an obstacle to achieving the lifestyles idealized in advertising and entertainment media.  Others see no reason to bring children into a nation and a world they perceive to be headed toward a future of economic insecurity, environmental destruction, and social disintegration.

The sickness of soul evidenced by these attitudes will not be solved by increasing the availability of daycare and maternity leave.  Hope for the future, an appreciation for the value of the gift of life, and an understanding of its meaning and purpose—these commodities are sorely lacking in a society awash in an abundance of material goods.  Yet without these, the prospects for reversing the declining birthrate are dim.