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Japanese Companies Address Baby Shortage

Japan, which has long fretted about its low birthrate, got limited good news when the government reported in June that the country's total fertility rate—the average number of children a woman is expected to bear during her lifetime—rose to 1.37 last year from 1.34 in 2007. It was the third straight rise from a record-low 1.26 in 2005. With workers losing their jobs in the current recession, the 2009 rate is likely to drop. "Economic uncertainty and job insecurity have made people even less eager to get married and have children than we had expected," says Shigeki Matsuda, a senior research director at . Last September, a week after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the institute polled 200 single and 600 married Japanese company employees in their 20s and 30s. Half the singles polled in the much-publicized survey said they wanted to wed but were reluctant to do so now. Among married people, some 80% with a child said they wanted another, while 90% said the downturn made that decision difficult. With citizens 65 and older on track to make up 26% of the population by 2015, the government is moving anew to raise the birthrate. An economic stimulus package approved in May earmarks $3.7 billion for aid to parents with newborns and for creating new day-care centers. And Minister of State for Social Affairs & Gender Equality Yuko Obuchi—daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi—has endorsed a proposal by Keidanren, Japan's leading business federation, to spend 1% of consumption tax revenues, or $25 billion, on efforts to produce more babies. "With the severe economic situation these days, many mothers would be going back to work. By improving day-care centers and other environment, we want to back them up to manage working and raising their children at the same time," Obuchi told the daily Asahi Shimbun on June 4. Business Steps Up It's still unclear if Obuchi, who is 35 years old and pregnant with her second child, has the political chops to push through a program. Government and business have been dragging their feet for years on fixing some of the problems behind the low birthrate, such as a shortage of day-care centers. About 40,000 children are on waiting lists at both public and private centers. and are among the few companies offering corporate day care. Now some in business are trying harder. Panasonic ( (PC)), Hitachi ( (HIT)), and Nissan Motor ( (NSANY)) are giving time off to employees needing fertility treatments. Sharp ( (6753.T)), NEC ( (6701.T)), and Canon ( (CAJ)) grant low-interest loans or subsidies to women undergoing artificial insemination, treatments not covered under national health insurance. "Electronics companies are leading the way in supporting workers undertaking the treatment. It is a good step forward," says Akiko Matsumoto of Fine, a group supporting women who are having difficulties in conceiving. Some firms are even granting paternity leave. Some smaller companies are focusing on child-rearing to attract talent that might otherwise go to bigger, better-known companies. Miyaji Denki Electric, an electric equipment wholesaler in Shikoku district of western Japan, provides a monthly allowance of $500 to employees on leave to raise children for up to a year, and mothers can cut two hours off their daily work schedules until their children enter second grade. Kimiko Umazume, 37, who has two daughters, said she has started thinking about having a third child. In Fukuoka, the prefectural government has introduced a system to give incentives—such as adding extra points to bids for public work projects and offering loans with lower interest rates—to companies that declare support for employees' child-rearing. Some 2,000 companies, most with less than 50 employees, have registered. "Almost all female employees used to quit after three to five years at the company when they married or got pregnant. But since we publicized our child-support program, many skilled mothers have applied for jobs," says Minoru Funayama, president of gift item retailer Eiko and the Fukuoka representative of an association representing small and midsize enterprises. Working Mother on Film Meanwhile, marriage and children have become hot cultural topics. In May, the public broadcaster NHK aired a drama series about kon-katsu, or marriage hunting. Just as shu-katsu (job hunting) is inevitable, people say certain activities are necessary to find a partner for marriage, such as participating in as many matchmaking parties as possible. And in June, a movie about a pregnant career woman was a hit. The film, Baby, Baby, Baby, revolves around a 35-year-old who unexpectedly gets pregnant soon after being promoted to editor-in-chief. "How hard do you think I've worked to reach here?" she shouts in the film. The editor's frustration "is shared by many women who have worked so hard to build up their career," says Fumiko Oga, the film's producer. While the media frequently report negative news stories about childbirth, such as the shortage of obstetricians and some hospitals' refusals to admit women in labor sent by ambulance, having a baby "should be quite a positive matter and we wanted to inspire women who can't make up their minds about having a baby," she says. One of the highlights is a scene showing the last 30 minutes of a delivery. "Many women who don't have a child watched this film and said they were happy to be able to experience it," says Oga. She also says she hears from many people saying they want to see the next film, about how the heroine manages to work and bring up her child. "It is very costly to raise children and it's very difficult to keep a job for women," says Oga. "Big companies are introducing systems to support working mothers but most smaller companies are reluctant to do that." View a slide show of countries with the world's lowest birthrates.
Tashiro is a correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Tokyo.

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