Sunday, April 27, 2008

Japanese Population Decline 3 - Unbought Christmas Cake

There is a saying in Japan that translates to "unbought Christmas cake".  In Japan it is custom for couples to eat a special and elaborate Christmas-themed cake.  Every year bakery chefs go to great lengths to stock the most popular and sublime cakes for this special time of year.  It is a labor of love.  Tragically, cakes don't last very long and since they're made especially for Christmas any still left on the 26th are either thrown away or sold at a deep discount.

"Unbought Christmas cake".  This is what you are called if you are an unmarried woman at 26.

It's not a term used with regularity in Japan.  Also, it's not even close to the norm.  The average age for a woman to get married is currently 27 and rising.  Still, I tell my Christmas cake story because it's the kind of term used among women in Japan, the kind of term that is jokingly used among friends when no one is looking, the kind of term you find buried within the editorial sections of trashy fashion magazines. 

Feminism is an odd creature in Japan.  Girls have more or less equal educational opportunity as boys throughout high school and indeed performance is decidedly par.  It's college where you see significant drop-offs. Female enrollment at Tokyo University is about 19%.  Compare that to Harvard, which is at 49%.  The imbalance of highly educated men vs. highly educated women permeates through to the workforce.  While it is not an uncommon sight, it is rare to see highly skilled, highly driven women at the top levels of the workforce.

To be sure, the Japanese workplace is a hostile place for women.  Sexual harassment, demeaning gender attitudes, and prohibitively inflexible maternity leave policies all contribute to this.  However, my take on the situation is that it isn't the workplace that's disenfranchised with women, its women who are disenfranchised with the workplace.  The Japanese workforce NEEDS women.  It is diminishing and graying at a rate unheard of in modern first world history.  Multi-national firms with women-friendly policies are reaping the benefits.  Less progressive firms are finding they need to adjust to stay competitive.  Market forces are changing attitudes and creating opportunities for women willing to take on the responsibility. 

However many women are not.  The numbers bear this out.  Japan actually slipped 11 ranks to 91st in The Economist's survey of gender equality falling behind manufacturing-based economies such as Cuba and Vietnam.  I can't say I blame Japanese women.  I used to be a salary-man in Japan.  It's hell.  You work late.  You commute hours on a sweaty, crowded train.  You're hardly if ever appreciated.  Given the choice, a life of stay-at-home wife doesn't sound bad. In an attempt not to sound like a complete sexist jerk, not all women in Japan feel this way - but a lot do. 

What does this have to do with Japanese population decline?

While there is no shortage of Japanese couples in Japan, there is an abundance of sexless couples.  It is a fact of life that lots of people get married and then are unhappy with that marriage.  Things change.  I'm not suggesting that this is anything new.  Broken marriages have existed since the dawn of time.  What is new however is the age of what I'd like to call "Incomplete Feminism".  A good number of women in Japan are choosing not to fulfill their filial duty and rightly so.  It's their uterus; they should do with it what they want. 

The big gap between Japan and their western counterparts is divorce.  While it may be controversial, my belief is that a certain percentage of marriages that end in divorce is a good thing.  Marriages, like jobs can be either productive or unproductive.  Macroeconomists will tell you that a certain level of unemployment is a good thing because an unemployed worker isn't always someone who's been laid off.  It might be that he's just looking for a job where he or she can be more productive.  I hypothesize that a healthy divorce rate is akin to a healthy unemployment rate.  It allows for unproductive marriages to make way for productive ones.

Japan's divorce rate is exceedingly low.  Less than 1% of new marriages in Japan end in divorce.  This is an astonishing rate.  #1 Sweden is at 54%.  The U.S. is at 45%.  Japan's rate is even less than India's.  While, I don't argue that this is the only factor in Japan's population decline, I do argue that it is a major indicator of so-called sexless marriages and which contributes heavily to population decline. 

What can be done about it?

A career-oriented woman with a stable job in an unhappy marriage can divorce the bum she's married to and start fresh.  She can choose to have kids with a man who loves and respects her.  If not, she can opt to go it alone.  You'd think then that being a career-oriented woman in Japan is incredibly attractive.  You would not get this idea if you read JJ, ViVi, CamCam or myriad of other Japanese fashion magazines.  The attitudes of Japanese men need to change before women become common in the workplace. However, Japanese women also need to take a hard look at themselves and shoulder a lot of the blame.  Women calling each other "Unbought Christmas Cake" imply that the only path toward happiness in life is to find a rich handsome husband, marry, and live happily ever after.  Japanese women should have more confidence in themselves, and if they're unhappy with their boyfriend or husband they should cut and run.  That's the only way Japanese women will change.  Hell, that's the only way Japanese men will change too.  

Take it from someone who knows ;)


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