The Declining Birthrate in Japan

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					The Declining Birthrate in Japan
By Takashi OshiO, kOBe UniversiTy

J     apan has entered an age of full-
      fledged population decline. The
      nation’s total fertility rate, which
is the average number of children a
                                             The relationship between
                                             working women and the
                                             childbirth decline
                                                                                           Editor’s Note
                                                                                           One of the gravest problems facing
                                                                                           Japanese society today is the declining
                                                                                           birthrate. It is both the hardest to solve
woman will bear over her lifetime, was          One of the debated points in the           and the one with the greatest impact.
1.32 in 2006. While this is slightly above   discussion of measures to promote             The birthrate is a fundamental factor
the 1.26 rate for 2005, the upward shift     fertility is the relationship between         that affects Japan’s economic growth and
appears to be largely due to temporary                                                     security, and the premise that underpins
                                             female participation in the labor force
                                                                                           our social security. In this issue, we
factors, not to a bottoming out of the       and the birthrate. The conventional           present a commentary based on a
decline. Indeed, the government’s            thinking is that when the rate of             detailed analysis of how this phenomenon
population estimates are based on the        participation goes up, the opportunity        is viewed in Japan and what aspects of it
assumption that the rate will continue       cost of bearing and raising children also     are problematic for Japanese people. With
to fall and that even in 2055, it will                                                     the causes yet to be fully illuminated,
                                             rises, and so if other factors remain         there are no magic solutions to the
only recover to the 2005 level at the
                                             unchanged, the birthrate is likely to go      birthrate issue. An objective analysis of
most. Because Japan’s economic and                                                         possible countermeasures is provided.
                                             down. When we examine the actual
social institutions, such as its social
                                             situation in the developed countries,         We also feature an American perspective
security system, were structured on                                                        on likely trends and qualities of Japanese
                                             however, we find that there is instead
the premise of population growth, a                                                        society that may help Japan to cope
                                             a mild tendency for birthrates to rise
population decrease endangers them.                                                        with this challenge. It is a refreshing
                                             when female participation in the labor        suggestion that characteristics regarded
Still, if only the birthrate could be
returned to a growth trend, problems         force moves up.                               by many Japanese as “backward,” such as
                                                                                           strong family ties and the tendency for
of this sort would greatly diminish.           Japan is low in the ranking of both         seniors to continue working, may in fact
For this reason, a growing number of         the fertility rate and the female             be strengths of Japanese society.
people are calling for measures to put       employment rate. This makes it                We hope these articles will help increase
the falling number of children back on       possible to argue that if more women          understanding of the issue of Japan’s
the growth track.                            were to join the labor force, more            declining birthrate and offer insights
                                                                                           when considering other Asian countries
                                             children would be born. Those making
                                                                                           that will soon face similar challenges.
 Currents No. 69              March 2008     this assertion have, however, received
                                             a great deal of criticism. One of the
 Meeting Japan’s Aging Challenge       6
 By Richard Jackson and Keisuke
                                             rebuttals is that the people making         countries. If instead the analysis
 Nakashima, Center for Strategic             international comparisons tend to           includes Mexico, Turkey and other
 and International Studies                   arbitrarily limit the sample to certain     countries with relatively low income
                        The Declining
                        Birthrate in Japan

levels, and also excludes Iceland, which       Behind lower birthrates: People                                                     toward men and women marrying later
has extremely high childbirth and                                                                                                  or remaining single is the chief culprit,
                                               who marry late or remain single
female employment rates, the positive                                                                                              measures to assist existing couples can
correlation becomes hard to discern.             Among the measures commonly                                                       have only an indirect effect.
                                               proposed to reverse the decline in
Another problem is that it is not easy                                                                                                So which are more important, factors
                                               the number of children are hiking the
to come up with theoretical reasons                                                                                                preceding marriage or factors following
                                               allowance for children, improving
why women should have more children                                                                                                it? Here our attention is drawn to data
                                               child-care centers and increasing the
when they hold jobs. One more point is                                                                                             on the average number of children
                                               allowances for childbirth and child
that the relationship between work and                                                                                             a couple will have up to 15–19 years
                                               care. These are all means of providing
the total fertility rate is not static. Back                                                                                       from the start of their marriage, or the
                                               support to married couples. When                                                    “completed fertility rate.” The National
in 1970 the correlation was generally
                                               thinking about ways to promote                                                      Institute of Population and Social
negative, while in the mid-1980s it was
                                               fertility, people generally start from                                              Security Research conducts a National
virtually nonexistent.
                                               the idea that the reason more babies                                                Fertility Survey on a regular basis,
   When we look at changes by country          are not being born is that bringing up                                              and as shown in Figure 1, the results
over time, we find that the birthrate          children is too expensive. It can be                                                indicate that there was little change in
has clearly bottomed out in a number           persuasively argued, however, that                                                  the completed fertility rate from the
of countries, such as France, the              the main causes of the falling number                                               early 1970s to 2002. On the average,
Netherlands and the United States.             of children are to be found before                                                  each couple had 2.2 children. The total
The overall trend, however, has been           marriage, not after it. If the trend                                                fertility rate, by contrast, steadily
for female employment to rise and the
birthrate to decline at the same time.
Japan in the 1970s had a relatively                                            Figure 1. Japan’s Total Fertility and Completed Fertility Rates
high level of female participation in
the labor force, but thereafter it rose
little, while the birthrate fell sharply.
Judging from this record, we cannot
confidently proclaim that getting more
                                                 Number of children

women into the labor force will result
in more children. To be sure, an upward                                                                                                               Completed fertility rate

trend in female employment could
lead to changes in social arrangements
                                                                                                                                                                        Total fertility rate
that make it easier for working women
to raise children, thereby lifting the
birthrate. However, such an outcome is
not necessarily assured.                                              Source: National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, National Fertility Surveys.

     No. 69   2
 March 2008
declined over this period. We may say        on first marriage, the age in Japan is                                        of more than half the children are
that when young Japanese men and             not notably advanced. And yet the                                             not legally married. Japan differs
women do marry, most eventually have         birthrate has continued to fall in Japan,                                     substantially from other members
two children.                                as in some other countries, whereas it                                        of the Organization for Economic
   There has been a slight change in         has rebounded in yet other countries.                                         Cooperation and Development in
the situation recently. The completed           The point to note is the relationship                                      respect to this relationship between
fertility rate dropped sharply to 2.09 in    between marriage and childbirth.                                              marriage and childbirth. And as Figure
2005, provoking concern about a loss of      Japanese women rarely bear children                                           2 demonstrates, a clear positive
capacity of couples to produce children.     before getting married. Of all children,                                      correlation exists between the share of
But another factor was probably              only some 2% are born out of wedlock                                          children born out of marriage and the
influential: the tendency among young        (and are not legally legitimate). By                                          total fertility rate.
Japanese to marry later and postpone         contrast, the share of children born                                            In countries with a large share of
having children. The Ministry of Health,     out of wedlock has climbed above                                              children born out of wedlock, it is
Labor, and Welfare reports that the          40% in Britain, France and nations in                                         common for couples to live together
average age of women on first marriage       Scandinavia, where birthrates have                                            for some time in what is essentially a
was 27.8 years in 2004, up by 2.4 years      recovered. There are even countries                                           marriage before they legally marry. In
from the average age 20 years earlier,       like Sweden, where the parents                                                addition, children born out of wedlock
while their average age on the birth of
their first child was 28.9 years, up by
2.3 years. When women begin bearing               Figure 2. Children Born out of Wedlock and Fertility Rates in OECD Countries
children at that late age, giving birth
to and raising two or three children is
physically hard on them.
  From this perspective, we find that
the dwindling number of children
                                                 Total fertility rate

can be largely explained by factors
that precede marriage rather than
factors that follow it, especially by the
tendency of young people to marry
late or remain single. Still, a persuasive
rebuttal can be advanced. That is, this                                                                                                               Correlation
tendency among young people can be
observed in many countries and is not                                                             Share of children born out of wedlock (%)
peculiar to Japan. When we consider,                                    Source: Compiled from data including Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, Jinko dotai tokei tokushu hokoku
for instance, the average age of women                                  (Special Report on Vital Statistics), 2005.

                                                                                                                                                                    3   No. 69
                                                                                                                                                                        March 2008
                      The Declining
                      Birthrate in Japan

are granted virtually the same rights      other life decisions are addressed. This     Another camp within the
as legitimate children, and couples        sort of thinking can also be seen in       government wants priority placed
with de facto marriages receive the        Southeast Asian countries, albeit with     on making employment compatible
same child-raising assistance as legally   differences in degree.                     with bearing and raising children,
married couples. In such a situation,                                                 using the promotion of child-care
there will not necessarily be any direct   Can birth promotion measures               centers, improved maternity leave,
connection between the number of                                                      the facilitation of reemployment after
children and the tendency to marry
                                           boost the number of children?
                                                                                      raising children and other similar
late or remain single. In Japan, by          Views differ sharply within the
                                                                                      measures. In the Cabinet Office
contrast, late marriage can throw          government on what to give priority
                                                                                      opinion poll, a fairly large group of
off the timing for having children,        among measures to boost the number
                                                                                      respondents favored such measures
and remaining single can eliminate         of children. In one camp are those
                                                                                      for balancing children and work. In
the chance altogether. In this very        who say that the emphasis should be
                                                                                      double-income families that earn a
different situation, marriage trends       placed on economic assistance, such
                                                                                      fair amount of income, these measures
impact directly on the number of           as financial support through child
                                                                                      are more important than financial
children born.                             benefits, medical-care subsidies,
                                                                                      support. We need to note, though, that
                                           child-care and education assistance.
  A variety of factors lie behind the                                                 the positions of the two camps are not
                                           There are solid grounds for holding
tendency to marry late or remain                                                      antagonistic. Perhaps equal weight
                                           this position. For instance, in 2005
single. Japanese women are strongly                                                   should be placed on both sets of
                                           the Cabinet Office conducted an
inclined to reject prospective marriage    opinion poll among women on                measures. But in any event, attention
partners without equal or higher levels    parenthood policy measures, and            should be paid to the following points.
of education, and as they acquire          when the surveyed were asked what            1. First, support to balance
advanced educations, it becomes            was most important to reverse the                children and work influences
harder for them to find a suitable         fertility decline, by far the most               choices people make as a
partner. Another factor, one that has      popular response, picked by 69.9%,               matter of individual freedom.
                                           was “economic assistance measures.”              From the policy perspective,
shown signs of receding recently, is the
                                           Again, in its 2005 basic survey on               such support is more
large number of financially unstable
                                                                                            fundamental than economic
young people who are “freeters”            births, the Ministry of Health, Labor,
                                                                                            support and is of greater
jumping from job to job or are “NEETs,”    and Welfare asked why they had
                                                                                            urgency. Bringing up children
those who are “not in employment,          fewer than what they saw as the
                                                                                            is a very human act. No matter
                                           ideal number of children. The top
education, or training.” To such                                                            how it is viewed, it would be
                                           reply, picked by 65.9%, was “because
youngsters, marriage is something                                                           unnatural to place restrictions
                                           raising and educating children is too
far from their reach. In Japan’s case,                                                      on this human behavior and
marriage has to come first before                                                           force women to make a choice

     No. 69   4
 March 2008
   between holding a job and                benefits and other such fiscal      approach to supporting children and
   raising a family.                        support for families. And           their families. What should be Japan’s
2. Second, there is a need for              while corroborative studies         stance in this respect? An examination
   measures to raise the policy             have found some evidence            of recent public documents shows that
   effectiveness of economic                that increasing the support to      “reversing the birthrate decline” has
   assistance by channeling it on           balance children and work can       become a key policy objective. In my
   a preferential basis to those            enhance female employment,          opinion, however, policies should be
   who truly need it. Instead of            few have shown that such            framed as measures to assist families
   distributing assistance widely           support also leads to more          as a whole, including children, rather
   and equally, it is better and            children.                           than targeted measures to turn the
   more effective to focus it on     The tendency among countries that          birthrate around.
   households in which income      have succeeded in the recovery of            Children bring economic benefits
   imposes a constraint on having  birthrates is to position their assistance to society. They stimulate economic
                                   programs as a “family policy.” That is,    growth and make financial resources
                                                                              available for social security. These
                                                                              positive influences on society are
                                                                              known as external economic effects.
  The tendency among countries that                                           In this way, children are public goods
  have succeeded in the recovery of                                           that create these effects, and they
  birthrates is to position their assistance                                  are, in this sense, truly a treasure of
                                                                              society. We should provide economic
  programs as a “family policy.”                                              assistance to the households in which
                                                                              this social treasure is being brought up
                                                                              at considerable cost. When we view
                                                                              measures to cope with the dwindling
3. Third, it is by no means        rather than formulating measures with number of children in this light, they
   clear how far the birthrate     the explicit aim of lifting birthrates,    are clearly highly meaningful even if
   can be lifted using either      they put together programs designed        they do not work directly to boost
   set of measures. There is no    to assist children and their families.     the birthrate.
   correlation between the total   Of course, a family policy may have an
   fertility rate and the share of underlying objective to avert a crisis     Takashi Oshio is a professor at the
   a country’s gross domestic      from a birthrate that falls too far, but   Graduate School of Economics of Kobe
   product that is used for child  on the surface, it is a comprehensive      University.

                                                                                                     5   No. 69
                                                                                                         March 2008
                       Meeting Japan’s Aging Challenge
                       By richard JacksOn and keisUke nakashima,
                       cenTer fOr sTraTegic and inTernaTiOnal sTUdies

E        verybody knows that Japan is
         ground zero for global aging.
         Fertility has been at or below
replacement longer than in any other
country and life expectancy has risen
                                            greatly diminished geopolitical role in
                                            the world.
                                               CSIS, however, remains optimistic
                                            about Japan’s future. We are optimistic
                                                                                      rising costs of supporting their graying
                                                                                      populations. To the surprise of many,
                                                                                      including ourselves, Japan scored
                                                                                      in the “middle vulnerability” rather
                                                                                      than the “high vulnerability” group.
                                            because, despite the magnitude of
to the highest in the world. With an        the demographic challenge, Japan          Why? Not because Japan doesn’t
elderly share of 20 percent, Japan          enjoys a number of economic, social       face a massive future fiscal burden
is already the oldest country in the        and cultural advantages that most         for old-age benefit programs. In fact,
world—and its age wave will continue        Western countries do not. We are          it faces one of the largest. Rather,
to roll in for decades to come. By          also optimistic because Japan, in         it was because, in constructing the
2025, the elderly share of Japan’s          its long history, has repeatedly          Index, we looked beyond the cost
population will be passing 30 percent       risen to great challenges and             projections and took into account
and by 2050 it could be approaching 40                                                various measures of society’s ability to
percent. Meanwhile, Japan’s working-
age population began to shrink in the
late 1990s and its total population in
2005. The Japanese government, half            There is no question that the aging of its
seriously, projects the date there will
be only one Japanese left.                     population is one of the most serious long-
   The apocalyptic demographic                 term challenges facing Japan today.
projections have led many in the West—
and some in Japan—to conclude that
the future is one of inevitable economic
decline. And indeed, there is no            reinvented itself to meet radically       adapt to the challenge—and here Japan
question that the aging of its population   changed circumstances—often to the        scored very well.
is one of the most serious long-term        astonishment of the rest of the world.       Perhaps Japan’s biggest advantage
challenges facing Japan today. It will      We believe that Japan will rise to the    is the relatively low level of elder
throw into question the ability of          new challenge of aging—and in doing       dependence on government. Public
society to provide a decent standard        so, it will help lead the way for aging   benefits, including everything from
of living for the old without imposing a    countries everywhere, especially in       pensions to social assistance, account
crushing burden on the young. If current    East Asia.                                for just one-third of the after-tax
trends continue, it will also push Japan      In 2003, CSIS issued a report called    income of elderly households in
toward a secular stagnation in economic     the Aging Vulnerability Index that        Japan, about what they do in the
and living standard growth—and a            ranked the vulnerability of the 12        United States. In most European
                                            major developed economies to the          countries, with their more generous

     No. 69   6
 March 2008
welfare states, more than half of           the generations.” Meanwhile, reform
elderly income comes in the form of         efforts elsewhere in the developed           Table 1
a government check, and in France           world have often encountered fierce          Government Benefits in
two-thirds does. (See Table 1.) Elders      resistance—from a powerful senior
                                                                                         2000, as a Percent of
                                                                                         After-Tax Elderly Income*
in Japan make up for the gap in part        lobby in the United States and from
through greater savings during the          labor-linked political parties in Europe.                               Average             3rd Quintile
working years. Another difference is           Unfortunately, the alternative
that Japanese elders continue to work                                                    US                            35%                 54%
                                            sources of support of Japanese
at much higher rates than elders in         elders are beginning to weaken.              Japan                         35%                  n.a.
other developed countries. In Japan,        The share of elders living with their        Canada                        42%                 62%
29 percent of men aged 65 and over          children, though still relatively high,      Sweden                        57%                 70%
remain in labor force. In the United        has been continuously declining
States 20 percent do, in Germany 5          since the 1980s. While this is in part       Netherlands                   54%                 74%
percent, and in France just 2 percent.      because rising incomes have made             UK                            50%                 75%
The Japanese extended family also           it easier for elders to live alone,          Spain                         64%                 77%
continues to play an important role in      Japan’s traditional Confucian ethic
providing support in old age. In Japan,                                                  France                        67%                 78%
                                            is also under assault from the rise
more than 40 percent of elders live         of Western “individualistic” values.         Italy                         59%                 83%
with their grown children, while in         Even as the family weakens, Japanese         Germany                       61%                 84%
many European countries the share is        elders may find their employment
                                                                                         *Excludes health and other in-kind benefits.
less than 15 percent and in Sweden it is    opportunities more limited. This may         Source: The CSIS Aging Vulnerability Index
less than 5 percent.                        seem paradoxical given the emerging
  The strength of these alternative         shortage of younger workers. But as
sources of income support, combined         Japan’s agricultural and service sectors    the adequacy of the system. The
with Japan’s remarkable cultural ability    come under assault from globalization       government projects that the
to build social consensus around            and new technologies make old skills        “macroeconomic slide” introduced
shared sacrifice, has made it politically   obsolete at an accelerating pace, the       in 2004 will reduce the Employees’
easier to reign in the rising cost of       jobs that many elders now rely on may       Pension Insurance system’s
public old-age benefit programs. Since      disappear. If Japan does not help them      replacement rate to just 52 percent
the mid-1980s, Japan has enacted four       continuously upgrade their skills, they     by 2025. This projected replacement
major rounds of cost-cutting public         may become increasingly unemployed          rate, moreover, overstates the actual
pension reform that have repeatedly         or even unemployable.                       living standard of future retirees,
reduced per capita benefit levels and         Meanwhile, reductions in public           since once benefits are awarded
raised retirement ages, often with an       pension benefits have been pushed           they are no longer indexed to wages
explicit appeal to “equity between          so far that they are threatening            during retirement or indeed, with

                                                                                                                           7     No. 69
                                                                                                                                 March 2008
                       Meeting Japan’s
                       Aging Challenge

the macroeconomic slide, even fully
indexed to inflation. What’s worse,
replacement rates will almost certainly
need to be cut again. The government’s          To meet the challenge of its aging society, Japan
projections assume that massive                 will have to ensure that support systems for the
general revenue subsidies and a large-          elderly are not only sustainable but adequate.
scale reserve fund drawdown will
help prop up the system’s finances.
Japan’s current fiscal outlook makes
the first assumption questionable. As
for the second, it is difficult to see how   Shimbun poll, 76 percent of the public    much more successful at allowing
near-term surpluses that are not being       distrusts the public pension system,      women to balance jobs and family. An
economically saved can later be used         and the share rises to 87 percent         aging United States in particular also
to cover long-term deficits.                 among people in their twenties.           enjoys another big advantage that an
                                                As time goes by, moreover, it is       aging Japan does not—namely, its long
  The next time that the government                                                    historical tradition of welcoming and
turns to the public to ask for another       also becoming clear that along with
                                             its advantages, Japan labors under        assimilating migrants from younger
round of sacrifice, it may meet much                                                   and faster growing countries around
more resistance than it has in the           two significant disadvantages. Japan’s
                                             conservative workplace and family         the world.
past—and not just from pensioners.
There is now growing resentment              culture often confronts women with           To meet the challenge of its aging
among the working public about               a zero-sum trade off between jobs         society, Japan will have to ensure that
scheduled hikes in contribution rates,       and family, which is why Japan has        support systems for the elderly are
and widespread agreement among               both one of the lowest fertility rates    not only sustainable but adequate.
policymakers that contributions cannot       in the OECD and one of the lowest         It will have to strengthen the private
be raised further than scheduled in          female labor-force participation rates.   employer pension system by requiring
current law. We see this resentment          Indeed, Japanese women who work           that all benefit promises, including
in the growing number of workers,            outside the home are often triple-        severance pay, be fully funded. It
especially young workers, who are            burdened—by jobs with long hours          will have to cultivate a long-term
evading joining the system and are           and inflexible schedules, by taking       investment culture that raises
not paying their full contributions.         care of demanding children (and           the dismally low rate of return on
The recent fiasco in which the Social        husbands) and by looking after elders.    household savings. And it will have
Security Agency lost as many as 50           Some Japanese watchers joke that          to search for ways to strengthen the
million pension account records has          they have to be “superwomen” to do        traditional ethic of filial piety before
not improved public confidence.              all three. The United States and much     it weakens irreparably. Beyond
According to a June 2007 Yomiuri             of Europe, especially France and the      retirement policy, Japan will have
                                             Scandinavian countries, have been         to engineer a more far-reaching

     No. 69   8
 March 2008
transformation of its society and         of entry-level workers. But it also         In some ways, the transformation
economy that allows it to make the        needs more babies to avoid long-          that Japan must now embrace will
most efficient use of its increasingly    term population decline. Government       be every bit as sweeping as that
scarce human capital. It will have        officials, business leaders, and          which catapulted it into the ranks of
to overhaul a notoriously rigid           educators will have to join forces        industrial countries during the Meiji
educational system to ensure that it      to combat stereotypes of women in         Restoration—or allowed it to emerge
gives young people the skills they need   the workplace and the family and          from the defeat of World War II as
to keep the economy internationally       persuade society as a whole that          a global economic superpower. Just
competitive. As its workforce shrinks     productive careers for women are not      as Japan pioneered the “Japan Inc.”
and ages, it will have to move beyond     incompatible with raising children.       development model in the early
the traditional “three box lifecycle”     The importance of success cannot be       postwar era, it now needs to fashion a
of education, work and retirement.        overstated, for at a 1.3 fertility rate   new aging model. If it succeeds, it will
Future workers, regardless of their       there is no long-term solution to the     not only help ensure its own future
age, will have to maintain and upgrade    aging challenge. Even if Japan were       prosperity in what is being heralded
their skills and knowledge through        to raise the retirement age into the      as the East Asian Century, but will also
“distance leaning” and continuing         mid-seventies, it wouldn’t be enough      help point the way for other fast-aging
education programs.                       to keep the labor force from shrinking    countries in the region—especially
  Above all, Japan’s workplace and        and economic growth from slowing.         the Tigers, which are now making the
family culture will need to evolve        Higher levels of immigration would        transition from “aging society” to “aged
in ways that help women meet the          certainly help. But it is doubtful that   society” even more rapidly than Japan
multiple demands society is placing       Japan will be willing to accept the       did and which share many of the same
on them. Japan needs more women           social and cultural changes that large-   strengths and weaknesses. Once again,
to work to make up for the deficit        scale immigration would bring.            Japan stands at one of history’s
                                                                                    great crossroads.

                                                                                    Richard Jackson is a senior fellow and
                                                                                    director of the Global Aging Initiative at
  Above all, Japan’s workplace and family culture                                   CSIS. Nakashima Keisuke is a research
  will need to evolve in ways that help women meet                                  associate at the CSIS Global Aging
  the multiple demands society is placing on them.                                  Initiative.

                                                                                                            9   No. 69
                                                                                                                March 2008
                                        Publisher & Editor: Hideaki Tanaka,
                                                Keizai Koho Center
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                                     to promote the understanding of Japan’s
                                     economy and society at home and abroad.
                                     Its financial resources are derived entirely
                                     from the private sector.
                                     KKC fosters a deeper understanding of
                                     Japan’s basic social structure. Further-
                                     more, it conducts public affairs activities to
                                     improve the Japanese people’s recognition
                                     of Japan’s global role.
                                     The views expressed in this newsletter are
                                     of the contributors and do not necessarily
                                     represent those of the Keizai Koho Center.

    No. 69   10
March 2008

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