Japanese children held by their parents start a 'Baby-cry Sumo' match, resumed for the first time in four years due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, at the Sensoji temple in Tokyo on April 22. (Photo AFP)
In recent years, Japan's identity as the renowned land of manga art and high tech has taken a backseat to a pressing concern: the country's declining birth rate. Various reasons have been attributed to this demographic challenge, such as economic concerns, changing societal norms, and the high cost of child-rearing.
However, a recent online survey on Twitter with tens of thousands of participants has shed light on a significant yet often overlooked reason: the negative portrayal of family life in Japanese society. The survey actually materializes what were mere conjectural concerns that we highlighted in a previous commentary.
It revealed a real apprehension, that the prevailing narrative of divorce and complaints about partners has discouraged many Japanese individuals from starting families. This in fact came as the second reason why people chose not to have a family, the first being a lack of self-confidence in “making one’s partner happy.”
The societal perception of family life plays indeed a crucial role in shaping individual decisions and desires regarding whether to start a family.
In Japan, the portrayal of family dynamics in media, especially news stories concerning famous showbiz personalities, but also the general online experience on Instagram, Facebook, etc. often focuses on negative aspects such as divorce, conflicts and dissatisfaction within relationships.
These are often seemingly harmless posts, or short videos that ridicule the choice of being a parent. Like a famous condom ad featuring a young man at a stage in life when he could be considering marriage. In this scenario, he finds himself in a situation where he encounters a loud and unruly child in a supermarket; he just stares at him thinking how grateful he is to have used a condom in his previous sexual encounters.
By presenting this relatable scene, the ad effectively conveys the message that contraception is not a means like it would have been in traditional advertising, of warding off venereal diseases, but is there to empower individuals to only think about the adverse consequences of being a parent.
The embracing of the lifelong commitment to raising a child suddenly appears a foolish choice. While the ad subtly highlights the importance of strategically planning and ensuring readiness before embarking on the journey of parenthood, this approach, which has been replicated in various ways by storytellers, influencers and advertisers, also emphasizes all the negative aspects of parenthood, such as robbing the individuals of the opportunity to pursue personal goals and enjoy their independence before starting a family. It encourages viewers to redirect their own aspirations toward themselves according to their own timelines and readiness.
By perpetuating negative narratives about creating a nuclear family, these messages instill doubt, fear, and apprehension about the prospect of parenthood. When young individuals repeatedly encounter stories like these and portrayals that focus solely on the challenges, struggles and undesirable aspects of having children, they tend to question whether they are ready or capable of handling the responsibilities and sacrifices associated with starting a family.
This can also explain the underlying reason for the lack of self-confidence in young Japanese people “to make a partner happy.”
These constant explicit messages do make individuals hesitant, fearing that their personal goals, freedom and happiness will be compromised by the presence of a partner or even more so, a child.
But we forget that it is often the case that when individuals, initially hesitant about becoming a parent, unexpectedly find themselves in the role of a father/mother, they undergo a transformative experience. They raise their standards and approach their newfound responsibilities with a level of maturity and moral strength that they never anticipated possessing before.
Positive stories about family lives are therefore essential; they can challenge the negative stereotypes about family life. When individuals encounter stories of successful relationships and happy families, they get suddenly overwhelmed by hope and positivity for their future.
It, therefore, becomes imperative, especially via the Japanese state media — funded by the taxpayers — and the numerous television and radio channels, to actively promote positive narratives that highlight the rewards, joys and benefits of starting a family.
By presenting balanced perspectives, such as examples of successful marriages, harmonious partnerships and fulfilling family dynamics, young individuals can gain a more optimistic understanding of the multifaceted nature of family life and it can effectively counterbalance, acting as a powerful antidote, the predominantly negative messages they often are unknowingly exposed to.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.