Connect to share and comment

Cash for kids in Japan

A new government addresses a low birth rate problem with cold, hard cash.

Why the tears? Perhaps this baby doesn't yet know that Japan's new government will offer monthly stipends to families with children, an attempt to stem the country's low birth rate problem. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

TOKYO, Japan — In the country with the lowest birth rate in the world, the newly empowered Democratic Party of Japan has proposed a solution: pay to procreate.

As part of the manifesto that helped the DPJ rout the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party in last month’s election, families will receive 26,000 yen (about $280) per month for each child through junior high school.

“We could use the money; it would help us manage,” said Jun Otake, a human resources manager at Japan Airlines who stands to receive $840 per month for his three young daughters. “People need help regardless of the number of children, but obviously more children mean more mouths to feed.”

Otake, 41, should know. He and wife Yuki are raising their daughters, ages 11, 7 and 2, in an 800-square foot apartment with two bedrooms and a single bathroom that Jun, as the only man in the house, finds ever-more frequently off limits.

To support this modest lifestyle, Jun commutes to work 90 minutes each way from the Tokyo suburb of Fujisama, not arriving home until midnight. Yuki, who gave up her own career 12 years ago, juggles the care of the girls. Their only time together on weekdays comes during mandatory 7 a.m. family breakfast.

It isn’t easy to raise children in Japan, where the birth rate of 1.37 children per woman has fallen well below the replacement level of 2.07 and contributed to structural problems facing the world’s fastest-aging society. The reasons cited are myriad: the cost of schooling, a lack of daycare options and an increasing number of women unwilling to interrupt or forego their careers among them.

But the new measure, which mirrors similar programs in other countries (France, for example, for years has heavily subsidized the cost of raising children), is not without its critics.

The child stipend plan — part of the DPJ’s populist agenda that includes making high school education free and removing tolls on highways — has been criticized by economists who question whether the $54 billion program, which costs more than the country’s defense budget, is affordable. Furthermore, women without children wonder if the money would be better spent on increasing the number of day care centers and other methods to help women return to work after giving birth.

“The child allowance is not a fundamental solution,” said Vivian Tokai, 41, director of government relations at an international conglomerate who is married but has no children. She and her husband, a marketing executive at a Japanese brewery, live in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood, where waiting lists for public day care facilities are long.