Thursday, January 19, 2006

Inoguchi: Gender equality needed to increase birthrate

Japan must act now to encourage parents to have kids: minister
Wed Jan 18, 2005

Women may have made inroads in corporate Japan since the days they were expected to serve tea and look for husbands, but much more must be done to reverse a falling birthrate, the woman tackling the problem says.

Japan should improve gender equality to let people enjoy both family and work lives and stop the population from shrinking further, according to minister Kuniko Inoguchi.

Some 70 percent of working women quit their jobs after their first pregnancy as they face difficulties balancing their homes and careers, while young people shun having children due to economic worries, she said.

"Japan is a resource-poor country and human resources are the only treasure we have here on this land," Inoguchi told AFP in an interview.

"Every child that wants to be born in this land must be given the opportunity to be born," she said. "Many young people willing to get married and have a family are deterred from making this decision."

"You shouldn't be asked, if you are born in an affluent democracy, that you can only have work or life," she said.

"I believe Japan is rich enough, affluent enough to provide citizens with both goals."

Inoguchi, a 53-year-old expert on international politics and security, was first elected to parliament with backing from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party last September.

A mother of twin daughters, Japan's former ambassador for disarmament was appointed to be the nation's first minister primarily tasked with addressing the falling birthrate.

Japan has come a long way from just a few decades ago, when women were referred to as "flowers" in the office who would find husbands and leave.

But Inoguchi said Japan also needed to focus on women who have left the workforce and who take care of children without the help of husbands toiling long hours.

"They are very lonely, they are up against the wall with a tiny baby," she said.

"All these days we have been addressing working mothers' problems, but the real problem could be those mothers who gave up their positions," she said.

Japan's population fell this year for the first time since World War II, a census showed, raising concerns for the future of the workforce in the world's number two economy.

The mostly homogenous [sic] country has resisted boosting its population by accepting wide-scale immigration.

"We have to reintegrate women fully to the labor force before we look into immigrants" and other measures, Inoguchi said.

Japan is racing against the clock, with the babyboomers' children remaining in their prime child-rearing age only for the next five years.

"So in terms of changing this declining birthrate, I have to work really hard up against the time limit.

"So you can't really postpone many of the political and administrative initiatives. It's not something that you would make in a 15-year plan. You have to work year by year with the best judgment that you could have."

"Everybody is for my program. Everybody is for the goal I aim for," she said.

But with Japan trying to trim a budget imbalance, Inoguchi was aware that financial limitations could give the government less room to maneuver in providing incentives to have children.

She said the government's cost-cutting drive could bring about "dividends" to be used elsewhere.

"I'm asking Mr Koizumi to give me the dividends in my policy area because we have waited for a long time," she said.

Less than four percent of Japan's social security expenses are spent on policies for children and families, with 70 percent going for care of the elderly.

Inoguchi is one of a small number of women in Japanese politics.

The number of female lawmakers has not risen much since Japanese women won the right to vote six decades ago. Forty-four women were elected in September, making up only nine percent of the 480-seat lower house.

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