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In Japan, life without children is savored with guilt

A growing number of Japanese couples are seeking satisfaction outside parenthood, even if they have to lie to their parents

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The young woman is polite, friendly, and happy to explain why she and her husband have chosen not to have children – as long as she doesn't have to give her name. In a country that cherishes babies, the stigma of intentional childlessness is sometimes too great to bear.

"We haven't actually told our parents that we have no plans for children," she admits, explaining that she and her husband prefer to play golf and operate as a twosome. "They think we can't. They might panic if they knew."

They are called No Kids couples (NOKS), and the growing number of NOKS runs against the grain in a country that views its shrinking population as a pending national crisis.

The average number of births per birthing-age woman in the country dropped to 1.36 in 2000, down from 1.91 in 1975, and well below the 2.08 figure required to sustain the country's current population.

The government foresees problems over the next 50 years as the number of senior citizens approaches 35 percent of the population. And the shrinking labor pool is a concern.

A driving force behind the trend seems to be the desire for personal satisfaction outside parenthood. It's something the Japanese government has monitored with some discomfort.

"People's awareness in terms of the role of the family is changing, putting more emphasis on being 'couple-centered' and 'peace-of-mind-centered,' rather than child-centered," concludes a 1997 report by the Japanese Ministry of Labor.

The Japanese are hardly alone in this shift. Throughout the US and Europe, growing numbers of couples have opted in recent decades for a freer-wheeling, more economically prosperous, double-income no-kid (DINK) lifestyle.

"There are definitely more DINKs in Japan today," says Sakie Fukushima, an executive with Korn/Ferry International in Tokyo. But she adds, "This is still a very limited group."

For that small but growing group, it remains difficult to share such a decision, especially with friends and family.

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