Down the Hatch

“Hatch for unwanted babies.”

It is a headline over the kind of weird story that sometimes seems to be a Japanese specialty. But it actually could mean a lot about the extraordinary demographic changes taking place throughout the developed world – in Asia even more than in Europe.

The “hatch” in question has been opened at locations around Japan for women to dispose anonymously of unwanted babies, no questions asked, to be looked after and eventually adopted by someone who wants them. It sounds like the very antithesis of Japanese tradition and has been roundly condemned by politicians demanding a return to Japanese family values.

But it makes a lot of sense to the Catholic Church, which is behind the idea and sees it as an alternative for some of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese women who have abortions. The church is behind a similar scheme in Germany, which also has a high ratio of abortions to births. The church condemns abortion, which is so accessible in Japan that that it exceeds the number of births annually.

It also makes sense to at least some of those who worry about Japan’s very low fertility rate. The population is just starting to fall and the nation will face huge problems as the number of people in the workforce will drop dramatically in the not-too-distant future. If the present fertility rate continues, the Japanese population, now 128 million, will fall below 100 million by 2050, to 40 million in a century. At this rate, the nation would be extinct by the end of the 22nd century.

Thus anything which causes women to give birth rather than abort is regarded as welcome.

There are lots of explanations as to why Japan’s fertility rate has fallen so low. Now around 1.3, it has been below replacement level since the mid 1970s. The reasons include inadequate government payments for child support, lack of nursery schools, low levels of female employment, long commutes and working hours for employees, cramped living conditions, costly housing, and even falling sperm counts.

But if Japan has a problem, what about the rest of East Asia? The lowest fertility rates are found in Hong Kong (0.9) South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, all below even the lowest in Europe. Singapore and Hong Kong may be small enough to compensate by importing mainland Chinese and Southeast Asians. But what is South Korea going to do? Its birthrate is also below replacement, unless it can take over the North where (if you can believe the statistics) the fertility rate is 2.1.

The mainland is not much better at 1.7 – down from 5.8 in 1970. Even if the One Child policy ends, rapid urbanization suggests that China’s fertility rate will fall further. Rates in big cities like Shanghai are already down to the Hong Kong level. Worse still, there is now a 10 percent surplus of boys at the young ages, suggesting a future of either war, hoodlums, gay marriage or polyandry. Imagine -- today’s Communist party chiefs with their multiple mistresses could be replaced by sexually active females with male harems!

Asian countries continue to delude themselves that their family values are superior to the west and that will ensure the survival of families, marriage and the tradition of family care of the older generation. The evidence from Japan and now from Hong Kong and Singapore is that care for parents is also a waning tradition.

East Asia faces even bigger demographic problems than Europe, if only because the transition from high to very low birth rates has been so sudden. Nor is the issue confined to industrialized East Asia. Thailand’s birth rate is also now below replacement levels and the percentage of old people will start to rise rapidly within 20 years. Vietnam’s change to low fertility came late but, like China’s, has been very sudden.

So how are these societies going to react? Are they condemned to rapid aging and eventual falls in population? Or will some combination of natural processes and official policy cause a reversal?

For clues they need to look at what has happened in the west, once seen as individualistic rather than family-oriented, In the US, the overall fertility rate is close to replacement level, but only because of the high rates shown by recently arrived groups, like Hispanics at 2.9. Longer-established groups, whatever their ethnicity, have rates akin to European averages.

But Europe itself shows puzzling variations which can be hard to explain but give some clues. The lowest rates are in Catholic southern Europe, once regarded as church and family oriented. Meanwhile the highest rates are found in northern Europe – Sweden, Norway, France, and the Netherlands. These at 1.8-1.9 are now close to replacement levels.

They also have three characteristics that are absent in much of east Asia.

  • High levels of government support for children, generous maternal and paternal leave, provision of nursery schools and crèches.

  • Very high levels of female workforce participation – like Singapore and Hong Kong but unlike Korea and Japan

  • A high level of births outside wedlock – even though abortion is readily available.

This all suggests that most women still want babies provided they can make the decisions and do not have to rely on men to do more than provide the seed.

Fertility is an ever-varying and quite unpredictable factor in social evolution. But whether it is baby hatches, unmarried mothers, new forms of extended family, polyandry or euthanasia, demographic and economic change is creating new and surprising developments in society. Do not be shocked. Search for the reason.