In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many indicators of decline in different aspects of Japanese society. Japan had long experienced demographic transition, which refers to the shift from high fertility rates to low fertility rates, particularly seen when countries transition from more agrarian to urbanized. Japan, with its advanced health care and low mortality rates, faces a rapidly aging population. As a result, the Lost Decade emerged as a period characterized by changing attitudes and beliefs which led to the demography problems of the 1990s. One of the most obvious phenomenons seen in Japanese society is the low birth rate. In response to the low birth rate, schools closed down, as there are less children to accommodate.
Teachers lost their jobs, and school supplier markets dwindled in numbers. In fact, since there were not enough children each year to keep them separated by age, age-integrated facilities were established. These facilities incorporated care for the elderly along with the young.
There were many causes of this lowering in birth rates. First, the age for marriage increased as women began to pursue further education and better jobs. There was also a decrease in marriage rates. Second, the cost of living was high. To rear a child required lots of money that many did not have. Parents had to account for after school lessons and enrichment programs. One of the most costly items was educational preparation at academies (“juku”). Parents save a portion of their income to cover this tuition in hopes of sending their children to prestigious universities.
Thus, people began having fewer children, as society valued quality care for children. If individuals felt that they were not prepared to raise a family, they did not make plans to have children. Families were smaller in size as parents set aside enough income to raise one child. In addition to the low birth rate, there was a low mortality rate, which further increased the dependency ratio. A national health system that offered quality medical care at low costs accounted for the increase in living expectancies, along with improved diets, further education, and better living conditions. Along with the increase in elderly came the increase in pensions, the payments during retirement from investments while a person was still employed.
Compared to a regular income, pensions significantly lowered the spending ability of the people. This reflects the troubles of a rapidly aging society: less consumers and workers inevitably lead to economic decline. A shrunken workforce meant that less people were paying taxes to account for the health care costs.
In addition to domestic issues, Japan faced foreign competition, making the decline of the manufactured goods sector inevitable. In the automobile and electronics industries, competition from East European and other Asian countries brought Japanese companies to hard times. The increase in number of retirements brought changes to society. As more people retired, the working population decreased. Once in retirement, the elderly would not spend as much on manufactured goods. Eating out at restaurants and shopping at department stores would decrease. On the other hand, much of their income was devoted towards medical costs. This led to transition, from focus on manufactured goods to an increased focus on the service sector, as the elderly sought help taking care of themselves.
Because of the heavy healthcare costs, government tried to shoulder some of the costs by developing insurance and health care programs. One of the main programs developed is the Long-Term Care Insurance Program. This program provided caregivers to help with taking care of the elderly. However, it was quickly evident that the program was not sustainable, as a lack of funds emerged. The quality of care given to elders was also in question, since caregivers were only given two weeks of training. Despite government attempts, most of the burden still lay on families, especially women who were given the responsibility of taking care of the elderly.
Even with the Long-Term Care Insurance Program, caregivers only helped for a few hours. Women were encouraged to partake in activities while playing the role of caretaker, which caused increasing social pressure for women. The pressures laid on population ages 20 to 60. The population in this range had to deal with the stresses of work but also had to shoulder the health costs of their parents. During work, they had to work hard and be an asset to the company. At home, there was a sense of obligation to take care of their elderly parents as a way of showing appreciation, the way their parents had taken care of them when they were young. They also had to take care of the younger generation, for they would be seen in a bad light if they did not take care for their own children and develop close ties with them.
Because of these beliefs, hiring babysitters was not considered proper. Of course, the heavier burden of these responsibilities pointed towards women. Prior to the Lost Decade, Japan held rather conservative beliefs on gender roles. Women were expected to take care of the family. Once a child was born, they would often leave the workforce and become full time caregivers. The role of professional housewife (“sengyo shufu”) holds a high social status. However, as the 1990s emerged, women’s roles were changing.
Higher education for women was sought, which allowed women to seek higher job positions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1986 attempts to address gender discrimination by demanding equal pay and treatment. Although it was not successful in securing for women equal pay, it brought the issue to national attention. The idea of self-sufficiency developed, as women provided for themselves. Women provided a significant amount of the workforce and focused on their jobs.
This shift in gender roles was a cause of the decrease in marriage rates and thus birth rates.