Barely a month goes by without some report or expert on demographics lamenting the ageing of Japan's population and the decline in the birthrate, but this trend seems irreversible in a country where women lose more than they gain by raising a child, experts say.
Last year, 1,156,000 babies were born in Japan, 15,000 fewer than in 2001, when the fertility rate per woman fell to a record low of 1.33 according to official figures.
Given the birthrate, Japan's population will decline from a peak of 127.8 million in 2006 to 105 million in 2050, and will decrease by half by the beginning of the next century, according to a health ministry study published last year.
The government is acutely aware of the population crisis, and has already acted to improve daycare facilities for babies and young children of working mothers.
By the end of June it is set to adopt a law on paternity leave, which includes an obligation on companies employing more than 300 people to grant it, to ensure that the number of men taking time off in place of their wife eventually rises from 0.5 percent at present to 10 percent.
"That would be great if it worked, but it won't. You can ask a Japanese man to work three times as hard to save his company, but not to take time off to look after his children," Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist and director of the Institute for Family Functioning in Tokyo, said in an interview.
Family roles remain "split along traditional lines with the mothers at home doing the housework on one side and the men as breadwinners on the other," said Saito, pointing out that most women give up work after marriage or after their first child is born.
This reliance on the salary of the male which is almost always more than what females earn, complicates the issue of parental leave, said J. Sean Curtin, a professor at the Japanese Red Cross University in Tokyo, at a recent conference.
This classic family set-up appeals to fewer and fewer young Japanese women who now have higher educational qualifications and live a pampered life at home with their parents until well into their 20s, or even 30s, often spared from doing household chores.
"Why are there fewer and fewer children being born? Because women are losing more than they are getting by having children," said Rieko Suzuki, research director of the consumer culture department at the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, affiliated to Japan's largest advertising agency.
"They lose their freedom, their freetime and their money," she said.
Being a mother is often a real burden since the husband -- when not sent to work hundreds of kilometers away from home -- only puts in an average of 27 minutes a week towards household tasks, mainly due to his long working hours, official studies show.
Cooped up with their children with little or no respite, the mothers offload all their frustrations and ambitions on them, said sociologist Muriel Jolivet, author of Japan: the childless society.
"The Japanese come bottom of the global rankings in terms of the pleasure experienced in raising their children," she said.
Seeing marriage as fraught with risk, young people are increasingly putting off the age at which they get married. It is now 27 on average for women, whereas up until the mid-1990s, virtually all women were expected to marry by the age of 25.