- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has set up a national commission on social security reform to cope with the nation’s aging baby boomers, who face retirement in a nation with too few workers to support government-promised benefits.

I’m concerned whether we can go on with the current social security system, when the birthrate is falling and the population is aging at a pace not seen in other countries, Mr. Fukuda said in setting up the 15-member panel late last month.

The effort is reminiscent of U.S. efforts at Social Security reform, with bipartisan commissions set up by President Reagan in the early 1980s and by President Bush in 2003.

Mr. Fukuda said he expected an interim report from his commission this summer and a final report by fall.

Japan’s birthrate began dropping after the post World War II baby boom had run its course. By 1970, it had fallen below the level needed to keep the nation’s population constant.

Today, it faces an unprecedented problem of supporting a population that is aging faster than in any other country, including those in Western Europe.

A report from Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research released in 2006 predicts that 40 percent of the population will be over 65 by the year of 2055.

That means 1.2 working persons will be needed to support each retiree, the report said.

Edward Lincoln, professor at New York University and a former senior State Department official, said Japan faces a similar dilemma as the United States, but that Japan’s problems are much worse.

We don”t have any economies that have had falling populations [during] the last 200 years, Mr. Lincoln said. This is new and different.

By some estimates, Japan’s 127 million population will drop to half its current level by midcentury. In contrast, the U.S. population continues to grow.

Richard Jackson, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the difficulty women experience in balancing jobs and family is one of the main reasons birthrates have fallen so low in Japan.

There is still a conservative, traditional family culture, and it is just as important as the workplace culture. … It is very difficult for women to do both, said Mr. Jackson, who heads the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Keisuke Nakashima, a CSIS research associate, said that Japan is already taking some steps to address the issue.

For example, he said, Japan is urging some workers to delay retirement and continue to hold jobs, often by introducing flexible or reduced hours.

This year, Health Ministry plans to spend $438 million, a 3.4 percent raise from last year, on plans to support workers with family responsibilities. They include increasing out-of-school child care centers.

Chikako Usui, a professor of University of Missouri, said Japan needs to give women more incentives to keep working after having children.

Without changing gender relations, this whole issue cannot be solved, said Ms. Usui, Mr. Fukuda should take a day off and help child-rearing at home.

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