Bucking the Baby Bust

Japan's birthrate is down, but older moms are on the rise

(this article first appeared in the february 14, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

After 12 years of marriage, Ikuko Osada had all but resigned herself to oblique but endless questions about when she was going to have a baby. Then, at the age of 40,she unexpectedly became pregnant, and gave birth to a boy, Keitaro, last March. ``My world has completely changed,'' says the financial planner in Kawasaki, a Tokyo suburb. So changed that she now preaches the joy of raising a child to her childless girlfriends.

Many of her contemporaries don't need to be persuaded. Although Japan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, Japanese women in their late 30s and older are beginning to have more babies, despite their declining fertility. While the number of twentysomething moms dropped 21 percent from 679,000 in 1997 to 538,000 in 2003, the number of mothers 35 and over rose to 157,000, up 23 percent in six years. The average age at which a Tokyo woman has her first child is now 30--a full five years older than the U.S. average.

The days when a kid born to a mother 40 or older was dubbed a haji kakikko, or a shameful child, are over. With more Japanese women postponing marriage to pursue higher education and careers, many have no choice but to have kids later. Medical advances in infertility treatment help make that possible. And women's changing expectations play a big role. Older mothers came of age during the glorious, free-spending bubble period and are used to making their own choices.

Medically, ``the right time'' to give birth is before 35, when the ability to conceive declines and the rate of miscarriage rises. But today's older moms think they picked just the right time. ``I couldn't possibly have had her 10 years ago,'' says Akiko Hirahara, a 36-year-old software engineer, who had a baby last year after she felt established enough at her job. Many established career women don't find going back to work easy. Hirahara, who worked until 10 every night into her early pregnancy, isn't thrilled about returning to the same pace. Some simply don't go back.

More older women would likely become mothers if they could. Japanese women have fewer options than Westerners: surrogate mothers are banned, and artificial insemination is strictly regulated. So is adoption. Nearly half a million women are receiving infertility treatment, despite the cost (one in-vitro cycle costs Yen 400,000, or $3,800).

Faced with a baby dearth, the Japanese government plans to launch yet another initiative--its third--to encourage a more relaxed, family-oriented lifestyle. In fact, employers already have all the right rules, though with no penalties for failing to follow them. Diet member Seiko Noda criticizes the government's halfhearted measures. Noda, a 44-year-old woman who wrote a book documenting her struggle to conceive, is vocal about the need for more choices for women, such as legalizing surrogate mothers. She says few politicians grasp that the looming birth dearth ``is the major issue of the nation.'' Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi outraged women across the country recently when asked how his government would support families with kids. His response was anodyne, to say the least: ``We'll promote our efforts . . . based on the support plan,'' he declared.

A more concerted effort is needed. ``Whatever the government does, young women won't suddenly change their minds and start having babies,'' says Sumio Shin, director of Katsushika Red Cross Maternity Hospital. ``Helping [older women have babies] is the surest way to fight the declining population.'' Ikuko Osada would welcome that. She enjoys life with Keitaro so much she wants to give him a sibling.

(c) Newsweek

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