TOKYO -- Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso has come under fire for criticizing women who have not given birth to children, as if to claim that such people are to blame for the declining birthrate.
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However, Aso is not the only politician who has made such remarks. Politicians' simplistic view that the declining birthrate would be solved if only people of so-called "childrearing generations" stopped complaining and had children has been heard repeatedly over the years.
Aso made the remarks in question during a briefing session on national politics to his constituents in the town of Ashiya in the southwestern prefecture of Fukuoka on Feb. 3. In talking about the government's policy of reforming the social security system to cover all generations, taking the low birthrate and aging population into consideration, Aso mentioned the drastic increase in the average lifespan in postwar Japan.
"It's a wonderful thing. There are lots of strange people who say the elderly are to blame, but that is wrong. The problem is those who don't have children," he said.
Legislators from the opposition camp bitterly criticized Aso's remarks.
"What is he saying? He serves as deputy prime minister, and as finance minister, is responsible for state finances. His message and his mindset, which have been spread throughout Japan and overseas, are an embarrassment," tweeted Renho, secretary-general of the House of Councillors caucus of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).
"It's a serious problem. His comments can't just be laughed away as typical Aso remarks. He completely lacks sensitivity for human rights," Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief of the CDP, told reporters at the Diet. "He shows no consideration to those who don't or can't have children and has no understanding of the essence of the issue."
At a press conference Feb. 4, Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party secretariat, said, He has no ability to learn, and shows no signs of serious soul searching. We can't help but question his qualifications to serve as finance minister."
The deputy prime minister then retracted his remarks after coming under harsh criticism from opposition parties in a Feb. 4 House of Representatives Budget Committee session. "I withdraw my remarks if they caused misunderstanding," Aso said.
However, this was not the first time that Aso made such comments about women's right to decide whether to have children.
"There are people who create the image that elderly people are at fault, but the problem lies with those who don't have children," he said in Sapporo, the capital of the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, in December 2014 when he was discussing growing social security expenses.
In 2009 when he was prime minister, Aso stated, "I have two children, so I've fulfilled my minimum responsibility."
Aso is not the only politician who has made gaffes over childbirth. In 2007, then Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa came under bitter criticism for describing women as "birth-giving machines."
In recent years, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged women to "contribute to the country" by having children. Upper house member Akiko Santo also stated that the government should "consider giving women who have given birth to at least four children an award."
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Journalist Renge Jibu, who is well-versed in issues related to childbirth and childrearing, said the deputy prime minister's aim of encouraging healthy elderly people to continue working, considering the difficulty of maintaining the social security system, is on the right track.
She pointed out, however, that a woman's decision to have children or not is a matter of the right to self-determination, and criticizing that is a violation of women's human rights. This, Jibu explained, is an internationally accepted concept. Moreover, she said criticizing women who have chosen not to have children runs counter to the government's policy of promoting women's empowerment.
The Act on Promotion of Women's Participation and Advancement in the Workplace calls for the creation of a society in which women can work while raising children.
Critics have pointed out that the ratio of single people among younger generations is rising because of an increase in non-regular workers whose wages are low and whose employment is unstable. Even if non-regular workers manage to marry, many couples hesitate to have children because of their low incomes.
Over 70 percent of some 3,000 married men and women surveyed last year by a foundation that provides support to those giving birth and raising children, called "1 more Baby Oendan (support group)," do not feel that Japan is getting closer to being a society where people can have children without concern.
Of those who answered that they feel that having a second child poses huge challenges, at least 80 percent cited economic reasons.
Kai Akiyama, senior managing director of the organization, pointed out that the declining birthrate cannot be overcome unless an environment is created in which women can give birth and couples can raise their children more easily.
"There are many people who feel that a sufficient social environment hasn't been established for childbirth and childrearing even if they want to have children," he said. "Those who say the birthrate is declining because people of 'childrearing generations' are not having children obviously miss the point."
(Japanese original by Yoshiaki Ebata, General Digital News Center; and Kazuya Shimura, Kyushu News Department)