Photo/Illutration A newborn baby (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The number of babies born last year is estimated to fall below 800,000 for the first time.

Over the last 30-plus years, the government has introduced various programs to raise the birthrate and support parents, but nothing has really worked.

So, even though the government says it really means business this time, I am not holding my breath.

Whenever Japan's low birthrate is discussed, reference is invariably made to the "1.57 shock."

The total fertility rate (TFR) represents the number of children that a woman would give birth to during her childbearing years.

In 1989, Japan's TFR registered 1.57, rewriting the post-World War II record low of 1.58 set in 1966.

The year 1966 was "hinoeuma," the year of the fire horse that occurs every 60 years in the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Actually, I was born that year.

In every birthrate graph, 1966 is the only year that represents a deep plunge. The reason lies in a pure, baseless superstition.

According to "Nihon Meishin-shu" (Collection of Japanese superstitions) by folklorist Ensuke Konno (1914-1982), women born in the year of the fire horse were said to "ruin seven husbands."

As one of the women, I bristle at this absurdity, but I have never had any personally disagreeable experience.

But many women who were born 60 years before me suffered prejudice, as it fell during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

This made newspapers launch a campaign in 1966 to warn the public against "being misled by a silly superstition," but the birthrate still dipped by as much as 25 percent from the preceding year.

With the number of children continuing to decrease since the 1.57 shock of 1989, necessary countermeasures include those that provide economic support, stabilize employment and enable workstyle reforms.

However, when reskilling and "working within limits of dependent benefits" are the subjects of discussion, I sense women are still being seen essentially as child-rearers who make convenient stand-ins when there is a labor shortage. 

The next hinoeuma will occur three years from now. I am sure there is a growing generation of Japanese who aren't even familiar with the superstition.

But I cannot shake the feeling that the age-old curse of "naijo no ko" is still alive and kicking, dictating the traditional womanly virtue of remaining the faithful wife who always puts her husband's interests first.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 6

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.