When people see us out and about with all the kids, people actually come up to us and ask if they’re all ours. “No, we picked this one up in the supermarket parking lot, and this one just followed us home one day,” we sometimes joke. But the old ladies asking us just blink. I guess it’s an American joke, as the natives call it.
But the fact that Japanese–who are not given to talking to strangers, especially foreigners–stop to talk to us about our children is a pretty strong indicator that we’re doing something rather strange. That is, having children. Lots of them.
I know that birth rates are declining all over the world in industrialized countries, but in Japan, it takes on a whole new quality. After all, the Japanese have no desire to open their borders to massive immigration, but they are also equally averse to having more children.
So they’re kind of stuck. And they’re not sure what to do about it. One thing the government does is try to entice its citizenry to have more babies by doling out a child-welfare allowance every four months. It’s great for my family — we collect quite a bit over the course of a year, but it’s not really meant for us, is it? And the Japanese aren’t taking the bait.
I asked my students what they think should be done about the population crisis looming. They said they didn’t know. From where I sit, there are only two solutions: have more babies (iyada), or allow for massive immigration (iyada). Iyada means “no” or “I hate that idea” in Japanese. They can’t both be iyada; you have to solve the problem somehow.
And that’s when my students let me know what they really think: babies are expensive and troublesome, so the government should do more to help us take care of them. More free money etc etc. I laughed nervously, assuming they were joking, but when no one shared my mirth, my heart sank. They were serious.
The sakura might be the most beautiful thing about Japan. I love going out with family and friends in the spring, sitting in the park, and looking up at the blossoms spreading on black branches across the clear sky. I go twice: the first time when the sakura have just bloomed and the second time when they’ve begun to fall. I sit on a mat and let the pink rain flutter down around me. Listening to the squealing of children as they chase the blossoms, trying to catch them.
Children. Fewer of them every year.
They are the sakura. Or, rather, Japan is. When the trees are in bloom, they are the most beautiful sight — breathtaking even from a crowded commuter train as you look out over the city. For two weeks, Tokyo is transformed. And then the sakura fall, and the long month of May stretches before you with no cherries in sight.
The trees have been designed that way — non-fruit bearing cherry trees. Then they’re not really cherry trees, are they? You could argue that they indeed are, but the sakura certainly have no future. They die, and all too soon.
The natural fruit of a marriage is children, and without them, a marriage, though valid and strong and good, is not what it could be. This is why we pity the childless, why we go to such lengths to help women conceive when they can’t. The fertility rate of the Japanese female is 1.1, the lowest in the world. And it’s not because the women have trouble conceiving; it’s because they’re either just not or they’re toddling down to the clinic to remove the unwanted inconvenience growing inside them.
I’m not here to preach about abortion or contraception; I’m just pointing out the facts. Japan is running out of people.
Fruitless marriages, and the nation now faces a crisis.
2012 saw the biggest population plunge on record: 284,000. There were only a million babies born in Japan in 2012 (and that stat includes foreigners’). With no children, Japan just keeps getting older. The elderly now outnumber children aged 14 and under.
No fruit. No future.
Our branches grow barer each year, and soon the tree will stand unflowering.