Saturday, May 12, 2012

The X-Y Axes of Stupid: Children and Childcare

There days one wonders, "Oh, why fight it? Why not just sit back and be stupid, like seemingly nearly all those in positions of wealth, power and influence?"

Today is one of those days.

In a Children's Day (May 5) bit of thought-provoking whimsy, researchers at Tohoku University posted a Zero Hour time clock (J). Based upon the rate of decline in the number of children in between April of 2011 and April of 2012 -- the researchers provide the URLs of the relevant government populations statistics pages -- the clocks tick off both the number of children in Japan and the number of days until, if the decline in between April 2011 and April 2012 were extended indefinitely, there would be but a single child left in Japan.

The press release on the workings of the time clock (J) by team leader and Graduate School of Economics and Management Professor Yoshida Hiroshi explains that he copied his idea from the famous U.S. debt clock. He also makes clear that the purpose of the clock is to stimulate discussion of 1) what the current state of the decline in the number of children means, and 2) what are the consequences if declines continue in the future.

That the whole exercise is not an academic but a polemic exercise is apparent from the press release. It is a rush job, with typos. For instance, in the paragraph explaining the goals of the clock, the text should say "apiiru" not "piiru." There is no such word as "piiru."

Of course, the writers and editors news organizations would never, ever take this bit of fun and blow it up into an an actual scientific enterprise. Oh no, they would never do that:

3011 to see last child in Japan: population clock
Jiji, Kyodo

SENDAI — Japan will no longer have children under the age of 15 in 999 years, a group of researchers at Tohoku University Graduate School has estimated.

The team, led by professor Hiroshi Yoshida, developed a child population clock that displays an estimated number of children at any moment based on past percentages of decline. The clock was made available on the university's website Thursday.

The team used a 2011-2012 percentage change in the number of children that was released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on April 1. The number of children aged under 15 fell to 16.6 million in 2012 from 16.9 million in 2011.

The clock calculates the estimated number of children at present and counts down to the last child, based on the assumption that the number of children is expected to continue falling.

Japan's child population drops by one every 100 seconds, according to the clock. As a result, there will be no kids on May 18, 3011...


Of course, this version of the story has gone both viral and mainstream, at least among the publications assuming their readership have sub-bonobo IQ (and if any of readers out there are 100% bonobos, please accept my apologies for associating you with these organizations).

(Search results)

Now this is not to say that the decline of the birthrate has not been one of the social policy areas where the government, both under Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Party of Japan leadership, has run up against a brick wall. The LDP in the 1990s went on a day care center-building binge that continues to this day -- the green line in Figure 1 of this 2011 Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare report.

[By the way, check out the map on page 9 of the report. It shows that of all the children awaiting placement in day care centers, 31% live in the Tokyo Metropolitan District. Add in Kanagawa Prefecture, and percentage rises to 43%. And nine prefectures have zero children on waiting lists.

Can we please now decently bury the "Japan lacks sufficient childcare for working mothers" canard?]

As for the DPJ, it promised, though it in the end has not been able to deliver, direct financial support to all families with children. The child allowance (kodomo teate) was potentially good social policy, as it certainly would have made it possible for lower and middle income couples to have children earlier and in greater numbers. However, the DPJ simultaneously sold the child allowance as an economic stimulus measure, which was dumb, as families, even though receiving only half of the monthly payments promised, still managed to save half the amount dispensed. Of course, financial planners writing in women's magazines advised readers to put all the child allowance into savings.

[If we are to take Shakespeare as our guide (E), the agenda for the DPJ should have been: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the financial planners."]

Tackling the birth dearth has been of tertiary interest for the DPJ leadership -- which has been expending far more of its political capital on solving the budget and pension gaps through raising the level of taxation or goosing economic growth rather than raising the number of taxpayers. Indeed, the "measures for for the declining birthrate" portfolio has become the hot potato of cabinet jobs. A humiliating nine different ministers have held the portfolio since a DPJ-led coalition took power in September 2009 (J) -- a rate of turnover neared only by the hard right dream portfolio of Minister for the DPRK Abductees Issue (six different ministers since the takeover).

Despite failure of the government to find a game plan for reversing the decline in the birthrate, the Japanese people -- whatever that means in genotype terms -- is not going extinct. The Japanese language might go extinct* -- look at at the state of Manchu one century after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. However, writing about the Japanese people going extinct based on the extrapolation of the rate of decline between April 2011 and April 2012 -- not a particular cheerful and hope-filled year, if one may say so -- that deserves a spanking.

* Mori Arinori (E) thought it a potentially worthwhile goal -- just one of the brainstorms that got folks angry enough to kill him on the morning of Constitution Day in 1889.


Jan Moren said...

If Japanese journalists are stupid they're not the only ones. Sweden's largest daily carried the exact same story this morning.

And as an academic I am not exactly happy that some people use their jobs as intellectual cover for a piece of rather shoddy polemic. We should absolutely be part of the public, political discourse, but we should be careful to make clear when we are speaking as academics and when we're simply speaking our own, private minds.

Anonymous said...

"Can we please now decently bury the "Japan lacks sufficient childcare for working mothers" canard?"

If you live in Tokyo it really is no joke.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

That 31% of the children on waiting lists live in Tokyo makes it clear that for those families living in Tokyo, finding a hoikuen space is difficult. However, the issue I had hoped to bury was the misapplication of Tokyo's problems to the nation. That many of the correspondents for non-Japanese media as well as most of Japan's media giants are based in Tokyo means that what is characterized as being a problem of Japan is actually a problem of Tokyo.

CAS said...

I think you're oversimplifying the issue of childcare. It's not simply a matter of places, but of how late the places are open. My own anecdotal experience in Nagoya is that childcare for parents who both work beyond 5pm sharp is limited or expensive.

Childcare facilities are also an intermediate measure. The real issue in increasing birth rates in developed economies is how easy it is to combine a career and motherhood. Full time secure jobs where the employee can guarantee being able to leave on the dot at, say, 5pm to collect children without it severely impacting upon advancement relative to male and/or childless colleagues are not thick on the ground.

MTC said...


Rather than rely on anecdotal evidence, call up the Nagoya City office in charge of steering parents to childcare facilities and get the stats that prove me wrong.

I would thoroughly deserve the smackdown.

As for the issue of changing the nature of work and advancement so that childrearing is seen as important, not an annoyance, you and I are in agreement -- though I would warn that mothers have significant de jure protections and privileges.

It is difficult to conduct relevant cross-national comparisons, however, with countries that grant work visas to foreign child care providers, which Japan does not do, save for those employed by foreign diplomats.