Overheated Population Activity in Japan

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Population Research Institute 1994 and
Social Justice Review July August 1994
Reproduced with Permission

Japan's Apparent Overpopulation in 1948

The tidal wave of population which beat upon Japan's shores immediately after the end of World War II in 1945 created a shock which has few parallels in history. By signing the terms of surrender aboard the USS Missourion September 2, 1945, Japan lost 46% of her former territory, and ceded extensive fishing rights. Air raids had destroyed 44% of the manufacturing facilities, had reduced 40% of urban areas to ashes, and had knocked out bridges, roads, and communication lines. Food was so scarce that the daily ration of 1000 calories was near the margin for survival. When I came to Japan in January of 1948, the United States was doing a major rescue mission by pouring in 2 billion dollars worth of emergency food and supplies. The USA thus saved Japan from a major famine and probably prevented widespread epidemics from occurring.

Into this paralyzed, shrunken, and impoverished Japan poured six million returning soldiers and repatriates from abroad, stretching further the lines of those waiting for their daily rations. Millions of re-united families then produced a post-war baby boom. The national population soared from 72 million in 1945 to 80 million in 1948. Not surprisingly, a crop of population experts appeared almost overnight, and with one voice called for negative demographic action.

And so all Japan was rife with talk about overpopulation and birth control in 1948. The Supreme Command of Allied Powers, headed by General Douglas MacArthur, had engaged a formidable team of American experts to assess Japan's situation. Their report predictably indicated alarming deficiencies in Japan's natural resources. Some of the experts openly advocated birth control as necessary for Japan's economic and social survival. General MacArthur did not officially adopt their recommendations, and stated in an open letter that these views "reflect individual opinions alone and are not based upon authoritative consideration or views of the Occupation."

But leaks to the press by the American experts were lionized by the local media, making it appear that America desired Japan to adopt a birth control policy. It had now become politically correct to blame overpopulation for Japan's ills, and to advocate drastic birth control as the cure. The Mainichi chain of newspapers now led a determined and unanimous assault by the media against babies in Japan, which was a complete reversal of the previous war time populist and legislative encouragement of large families.

The conventional wisdom established by experts and the media in 1948 was that Japan cannot support more than 80 million people. If Japan crosses that benchmark of no return, only three possibilities remain: 1) Either the Japanese will rely forever on food handouts from the USA; 2) or they will live perpetually at subhuman levels; 3) or they will go to war again to claim more living space.

Negative population propaganda went out of control, like a typhoon sweeping over the nation. Every nook and corner of Japan, from Waken on the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, to Kagoshima in south Kyushu, now washed in indoctrination for birth control. Theaters showed films of how-to-do-it, PTA's discussed it, newspapers carried daily bulletins.

On July 13, 1948 the so-called Eugenics Protection Law legalized contraception (Art. 15), and abortion (Art. 14). It authorized designated physicians to artificially terminate pregnancy for "a mother whose health may be affected seriously by continuation of pregnancy, or by delivery, from the physical or economic viewpoint."

About 8000 gynecologists took the required courses to do abortions which became a lucrative business. Midwives, feeling the baby pinch, supplemented income by hawking condoms, sometimes staking out territories. That Japan was overpopulated was now beyond dispute, like a sacred cow. So sacred had the concept of overpopulation become that mothers considered it a social duty to have few babies. Gossip was quick to target an unconforming woman who, "despite government instructions shamefully has one baby after another." Housing was uniformly miniaturized to shoehorn in a two child family. If neighbors heard the crying of a third baby born into the next door family, they showed hostility rather than joy with congratulations. Abortion became a standard fixture in most families. About two thirds of the family planning was effectuated, initially, by abortion rather than contraception.

Monday morning coaches of 1994 find it easy to criticize mistakes made in 1948. Clearly, it was not babies which caused food shortages and lack of jobs in postwar Japan. Once Japan's industries recovered and went into full gear, stirred into early action by the war in Korea, jobs opened even faster than labor became available. The babies of 1948 were producers by 1968. And farmers harvested fantastic crops which soon resulted in rice overproduction.

Today, half a century after World War II, Japan's tremendous labor force and producing capacity is oversize for the domestic use of the undersize consumer population. Their overproduction now piles up on piers, which swift ships carry to America and Europe, and there excite angry resentment and Japan bashing because of trade imbalances.

Thus all pessimistic predictions of 1948 have been turned on their head: if Japanese people are hungry today, it is probably because they are on a diet, not because they don't have food; instead of receiving handouts from Americans, the Japanese export their surpluses to America; instead of emigration out of an overcrowded Japan, we see foreigners heading into Japan to find lucrative jobs; instead of starting war to gain more territory, pacifist Japan has a political crisis when sending a few soldiers out for UN peace operations. And within Japan, metropolitan areas drain population out of an underpopulated countryside, not the other way around. Everything that the population experts had predicted with smug expertise is now turned inside out and upside down. The experts had evidently not been in touch with real life in Japan.

But the clumsy fly wheel of public opinion which anti-baby propaganda started spinning in 1948, now continues to spin destructively and out of control. The mind-set of Japan is adamant against babies. Why have children? Why marry at all? Young mothers refuse even a second baby, though the husband would like another, though the doctor may advise that two is better than one. Japan is rapidly becoming a national old folks home, a situation which is not especially appealing to the younger generation. The demographic age configuration is like an Egyptian pyramid slowly turning upside down: the narrow base of the young is at the bottom, being pressed by the broad base of the aging category on top. The parents who once refused to have a proper quota of children are now imposing themselves unfairly on the undersized younger generation.

Such is the situation which greeted Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the UNFPA, who visited Japan in January, 1994 in quest of anti-population funds. Promotion of birth control in Japan had fallen completely out of fashion. She was greeted, instead, with concern about a declining birthrate. It should have been apparent to her that anti-population propaganda had run amok in Japan, much like the great leap forward and the cultural revolution had run amok in China some years before. Sadik, changing her usual tone of anti-baby rhetoric, mumbled that Japan's sagging birthrate is due to the double burden which women carry: work outside the home as well as responsibility for childcare and household management. "Unless that burden is shared between women and men," she declared, employing feminist jargon, "I don't think women are going to increase childbearing."

But her simplistic solution of having husbands help with the housework, though laudable, will not fix what is broken in Japan. The long years of anti-motherhood clamor by the media - and that is what anti-population propaganda finally amounts to - inclines men and women alike to undervalue motherhood. A stubborn residue of anti-motherhood rebellion dominates public opinion now, and distorts the economy; anti-motherhood sentiment drives women out of the home to seek fulfillment elsewhere; the economy is geared to produce things, not homes. If public opinion and economic patterns will again tend to honor motherhood, then perhaps men and women will again want to strengthen family life and support children. The men will gladly share responsibilities of home care with many children, if this is what the public says it wants, and if this is the direction which the economy favors.

On the occasion of Ms. Sadik's quest in Japan to solicit anti-baby funding for UN operations, Mainichi newspapers indelicately reported that Japan's families now have only 1.5 children in average, less than replacement of two aging parents. The low rate, reported Mainichi, "is causing consternation among authorities who are worried how the dwindling population will provide for their elders" (January 31, 1994). We hereby invite Mainichinewspapers to call upon Japan and the UN to mind its anti-baby talk. Anti-motherhood talk can only seduce parents to bear less than their share of children, which is unfair to the next generation.

Babies are Japan's Future

All is not lost in Japan. Though small families tend to become smaller still - one child, or none, or no marriage at all - larger families are by no means extinct. Twenty percent of children are born into families which already have at least two children. In 1989, 241,193 newborn babies were welcomed into the world by two or more elder brothers and sisters. By the slow turn of demographic realities, larger families tend to out-populate smaller ones, and to inherit the nation. The children raised in larger families experience joys in humanity and home life which industry cannot supply; their healthy and positive attitude toward life is a treasure for the nation.

How the Pill was Blocked Out of Japan

Another plus for Japan is her ban against the birth control Pill, together with parental refusal to allow raw sex education in schools. Parents have wisely reasoned that Pills on the market would tend to demoralize youth. Recently, another drive to legalize Pills in Japan ended in failure.

Allow me to divulge a little known secret about Japan's snobbery vs. the birth control Pill. Doctor Yoshio Koya was a great power who worked behind the scenes against the Pill in the 1960's. He was elected President of the Japan Family Planning Federation in 1959 and held that position during the critical years which followed; he was also appointed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to the Population Problem Council and other powerful governmental advisory positions.

If I am not mistaken, his special relations with the Population Council of New York gave him additional political leverage in Japan. Dudley Kirk, for example, who was at the time demographic director at the New York based Council, produced an English translation of Dr. Koya's monograph titled Pioneering in Family Planning (1963); another prominent Council member, Dorothy Nortman, supplied its introductory review. This connection could not but enhance Dr. Koya's prestige and power within Japan's Welfare Ministry, which then decided to ban the Pill.

I visited Dr. Koya from time to time on friendly terms. I carried with me stacks of data provided by Dr. Herbert Ratner, public health official of Oak Park in Chicago. Perhaps no doctor in the world has so thoroughly discredited the Pill as Dr. Ratner did in those early days. Dr. Koya, for whatever other reasons he might have had, then convincingly worked to dissuade government officials from legalizing the Pill for birth control in Japan. He and other dissuaders told about damage to health inflicted by the Pill, not only to users but to their offspring and to future generations. Their opposition carried the day, and the government decision to ban the Pill has held until now.

It was probably not at all the intention of the Planned Parenthood Federation, nor of the Population Council of New York, to help block the birth control Pill from Japan. But in this case their unwitting influence was very likely instrumental in doing just that. And Japanese women, spared the inconveniences which 60 million other women in the world suffer from the Pill, should be grateful.


I say: learn from the Japan experience. Tone down the anti-baby talk. Don't overheat it in the UN, and in developing nations. Parents will solve their family population problems very well for the most part, if you just leave them alone. Parents are well equipped by nature to want what is best for their families without being lectured to about birth control by Planned Parenthood and UNFPA, and USAID. And in the long run, what parents find to be good for their families will likewise be good for the nation and for the global human population. Thank you.