Just one year ago, people in Japan were pulling together. Actually, it felt like the whole world was pulling for Japan. I loved the patriotic fervor of the “Ganbare Japan” and “Pray for Japan” type slogans that grew from a desire to see this country heal and come back strong. My neighbors often expressed heartfelt gratitude for the foreign volunteers who were pouring in to help the survivors of the great disaster of 2011. In the shock and horror of that time, one source of comfort was that we were not alone. Japan even seemed to be opening up to the world in a new way.
Who would have thought that just one year later, Japan would be in a war of words with its neighbors as some of its politicians express right-wing, nationalistic attitudes unworthy of the Japan of today?
Certainly, I can understand that Japan’s politicians need a new rallying cry. Japan is in crisis. The stalled economy and looming debt make it difficult to be optimistic about the future (yes, the same can be said about America). Even more sinister is the literal stagnation of Japan itself where many have lost interest in having children or even pursuing marital relationships.
I don’t claim to understand the importance of the disputed territories that is preoccupying the Japanese government right now. But I do know that in less than 50 years, Japan’s population is projected to fall by one-third, and what is left of the young people will be struggling to pay back Japan’s debt, take care of all of the elderly, and cling to the quality of life enjoyed by their grandparents. I wonder if they’ll reflect back on today’s leaders with affection.
Japan needs a new rallying cry, but it should not be one that tries to boost its nationalism vis-à-vis its neighbors. Instead, its government needs to tackle real issues, such as something as simple and yet vital as child care. It’s inconceivable that 46,000 children are still on waiting lists for day care in a country with a declining and super-aging population. In fact, in 2011, there were 200,000 fewer women 15-49, and the lowest number of children were born since 1947.
Yet, women who want to enter the workforce can’t. Since Japan’s work force is beginning to shrink, women are a needed and untapped source of power for the economy. But a recent survey of Japanese professionals showed that 74% believe that women are less employable if they decide to start a family. It makes one wonder if Japan can really change.
Though Japan needs more full-time female workers, I’m sure many women who want day care just want part-time work or periodic babysitting. Realize that babysitting is almost non-existent in Japan unless a young mother lives near her own mother. And her mother may be quite overwhelmed taking care of her and/or her husband’s aged parents. Husbands work too late to help much, and there are few fenced-in backyards. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t be able to make it without the help of a neighborhood kindergarten.
If Japan wants women to have more babies, they need to do everything possible to support them. Japanese women riding their bicycles to the grocery store with a little one in front and another in back need to be celebrated as the heroes of Japan because they are creating the future. In fact, government leaders should be so focused on encouraging healthy families that fights with neighboring countries, though perhaps unavoidable, could never drive party slogans and political rhetoric.
Japan needs deep change to face the future. While a kind of patriotism did make Japan strong at one time, it needs a totally different kind for the future, the kind we saw last year after the tsunami. Japanese politicians need to lead its people to pull together for the very survival of Japan.
Let’s face it. Depression is rampant and is causing between 800,000 and 1.2 million to quit or stay away from work every year. Having more than 30,000 suicides a year is simply expected as de facto. Many young people don’t even have the gumption to leave their parents’ home and be independent, let alone start families. Too many are isolated and unable to interact with the world around them. While many Japanese couples are eagerly waiting for children to adopt, the government continues to send infants to orphanages. No one seems to be able to stop extreme bullying in the schools. And programs to bring in immigrants to help with the vast shortage in care-givers/nurses have failed miserably.
I don’t think looking to the past or fighting with neighbors, which only adds to the problems and hurts the economy further, is going to turn the country around. I don’t know all the answers, but I hope the government will stop ignoring the elephant in the room.
Many Japanese people are told that they will die when, though no one knows when and where, the inevitable earthquake hits. Disasters are almost certain, and the people in Japan need all the mental and spiritual strength they can muster to face them. Japan also needs the goodwill of the world, especially close neighbors. If Japan’s leaders are looking for old clichés to bring Japan through, they may want to consider “United We Stand,” another slogan from last year. At least, it included friends throughout the world and even foreigners who have made this country their home.