Very Low Fertility in Japan and Value Change Hypotheses

Makoto ATOH

Fertility in Japan dropped below replacement level in the middle of the 1 970s and declined further since the middle of the 1980s, having reached I .42 of TFR in 1995. Much evidence shows that such fertility decline occurred directly as the result of the rise in the proportion single and the rise in the age at marriage and age at childbearing . According to the population census, the rise in the proportion single has been accelerated since the middle of the 1980s. How can we explain such recent change in marital behavior and its resultant fertility decline in Japan?
Fertility in most of the Western societies declined below replacement level in the 1970s and remained very low level since then in many countries. Three main factors have been emphasized in many studies for explaining such below-replacement fertility : they are technological, economic, and cultural factors. Among them, technological factors are the prevalence of the modern contraceptives, especially the oral pill, and the legalization of induced abortion, and economic ones are the achievement of an affluent society and the increase in women's gainful employment.
Adding to these two factors, several authors stressed the importance of cultural factors : They are value changes since the 1960s. Aries called it "the end of a child-centered society" and Van de Kaar mentioned an attitudinal change from "King child" to "King-pair". Lesthagae called it secularization and individuation and Simions called it a value change from fundamentalism to pragmatism. What is common to all these theories is the idea that younger people in the West has come to decide their behavior related to reproduction, such as pre-marital sex, cohabitation, marriage, divorce, abortion, the number of children they have, etc., from the viewpoint of self-actualization rather than that of social conformism regarding families.
In Japanese situation, while technological factors are irrelevant to low fertility since there has hardly been any change in fertility control behavior in these two decades, there were many studies which related the recent fertility decline to economic factors, especially the rise in women's labor force participation rates and the shrinkage of wage differentials due to sex. But, how about value change hypotheses?
According to various nationally representative, time-series, and comparable attitudinal surveys which were undertaken in post-war years by various institutes, there has hardly been any dramatic change in religious attitude and has been only a moderate change from social conformism to individualistic attitude in these forty years. Also, family size norm has remained almost constant for these two decades : 2.6 children on average for the ideal number and 2.2 children on average for the intended number. Therefore, it seems to be inappropriate to explain the recent fertility decline in Japan by those above-mentioned value-change hypotheses proposed for the Western societies.
In contrast, there has been a tremendous attitudinal change related to women's social role and status in Japan especially since the middle of the 1980s. First, the attitude toward pre-marital sex has become more tolerant since the end of the 1970s. The proportion agreeing with the opinion that women would rather get married has decreased from more than 80% to less than 50% between 1972 and 1990 both for men and women. The proportion agreeing with divorce has increased from just more than 20% to about 40% for both sexes between 1972 and 1992. Also the positive attitude toward "breadwinner-homemaker system" or the division of labor by sex has weakened for both sexes, but especially for women, in these two decades, but especially since the 1980s, while women's desire for pursuing both marriage life and gainful employment has been strengthened.
The most striking attitudinal change was observed for the care of the elderly parents among married women of reproductive age : The proportion thinking the care of the elderly parents as good custom or social obligation decreased substantially in the middle of the 1 980s. Finally, the value of women increased among themselves : The proportion of women who want to be reborn as man if they can has decreased gradually since the 1960s and boy preference has conspicuously weakened among married women of the reproductive age in the 1980s.
All these survey results suggest that the rapid rise in the proportion single and its resultant fertility decline in Japan in this latest decade can be related to the change in the value system regarding women's social role and status, a change toward the valuation of a gender equal society, or "sex-role revolution" called by K. Davis, rather than to secular individuation or the end of a child-centered society.


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