One Country’s Slow-Motion Suicide

The “replacement rate” a society must achieve to maintain its population is a matter of cold actuarial statistics:  an average woman must bear 2.1 children during her lifetime.  If that fertility rate is exceeded, a country’s population grows; if the replacement rate isn’t met, the country’s population declines.

According to tables published by the World Bank, fertility rates vary widely.  In Niger, for example, the fertility rate is 7.6.  In Japan, on the other hand, the fertility rate is 1.43 — far below the replacement rate and one of the lowest rates in the world.  And, in fact, Japan’s population is declining.  Last year, 1.27 million Japanese died, and only 1.001 million were born.  Such rates obviously aren’t sustainable long term.  They are particularly troubling if, as in Japan, the current system involves long-lived retirees receiving pensions funded by the tax payments of a shrinking pool of younger workers.  Again, cold statistics dictate that, some day, the financial crash must come if trends aren’t reversed.

Of course, cold statistics really don’t tell us the whole story when it comes to birth rates.  Why aren’t Japanese men and women getting together and having children, as they have since time immemorial?  A recent survey concluded that a big part of the procreation problem is what the Japanese call “herbivorous males” — men who have lost their “masculine confidence,” have eschewed the burdens of high-powered careers, have no interest in girlfriends or families, and are content to work at low-paying jobs and shop for recreation.  The survey also shows that many Japanese have lost interest in having sex and that even young married couples routinely go weeks and even months without it.

Why is this so?  It’s not a question born of prurient interest, but ultimately one of national survival.  After countless generations of human history in which a desire for intimacy has been a principal focus of personal interaction, why are people in countries like Japan losing interest in an activity that is essential to the survival of the species?  And how can the country change the dynamic?  It’s a crucial issue, because If the demographic trend isn’t reversed, Japan will continue to commit slow-motion suicide.

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