Cash for kids in Japan

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.

Last October, more than 40,000 Japanese children were unable to register with government-approved day care centers, which are larger than their private counterparts and have better resources, such as playgrounds.

The DPJ proposed the allowance “as a bargaining chip to get elected,” Tokai said. “The government needs to overhaul the fundamental things. Finding child care is very, very difficult.”

Tell that to Mayumi Yamamoto and her American husband, Brad Horton, college professors who are raising a 6-year-old daughter in one of Tokyo’s most child-rich wards.

It took Yamamoto, 49, and Horton, 42, more than two years to find a spot for Shiori because their neighborhood center concluded that the couple was working only part-time at their universities and rated them as lower priorities than families with two working parents.

The ordeal was so difficult and protracted that the couple decided not to have a second child, Horton said. “That’s one less child living in Japan,” he added ruefully.

For working women who succeed in finding care for their children, the costs add up. Eiko Tanaka, who works in the Tokyo branch of a Danish pharmaceutical company, pays about $478 per month to send her daughter to day care each day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tanaka recently returned to work after taking a year off to care for her second daughter, who recently entered a nursery.

Still, Tanaka said she and her husband can afford the costs, adding that the child allowance, which will be paid to all families regardless of income, should be limited to poorer families. “I don’t like that they are giving it to everybody,” Tanaka said. But Naoko Kaihata, 36, a senior consultant at the Tokyo office of CB Richard Ellis real estate firm, said she and her husband, who works as a research analyst at the Bank of Yokohama, welcome the stipend to help raise their 4-year-old daughter, whose day care costs more than $500 per month.

“It is not so much that we think we will spend more on our daughter’s stuff or family expenses, but this does help us feel more secure for our future,” Kaihata said.

She paused, then added that the government also must spur economic growth by creating incentives for businesses.

“If I can’t get a job in the future, a child stipend is not enough,” Kaihata said. “I will feel insecure and I will start to think I do not want any more kids.”