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McLanahan’s (2004) paper on “diverging destinies” is one of the most widely cited publications in family demography, but related research has focused almost exclusively on the U.S. and Western Europe. This relatively narrow geographical focus is an important limitation. Comparable evidence from low-fertility countries in other parts of the world is required to evaluate the claim that increasing socioeconomic differences in early childbearing observed in the U.S. and Western Europe are indeed a universal feature of family change associated with the second demographic transition. Perhaps more importantly, evidence from countries characterized by very different social, economic, and political contexts can provide insights into the ways in which the pace and the nature of family change associated with diverging destinies depend upon context. For a variety of reasons, Japan is a particularly informative case to evaluate the generality of patterns observed in the U.S. and other western countries and to develop contextual modifications to the notion of diverging destinies.

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, there are good theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that the pattern of family bifurcation associated with diverging destinies is unlikely to emerge in Japan. At the same time, there are good reasons to believe that such change may be underway. As described in the next chapter, Japan is a country that has long been characterized by relatively low levels of socioeconomic inequality and a homogenous and highly scripted family life course (Brinton 1992). Importantly, Japan is also perhaps the most gender-inegalitarian wealthy country. To the extent that theoretical emphases on feminism and growing gender symmetry in work and family roles have contributed to observed patterns of family bifurcation, similar change is unlikely in Japan. The contraceptive environment in Japan also contrasts with theoretical explanations for observed patterns of family change in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Strong theoretical reasons to expect similar patterns of family bifurcation in Japan include the policy environment and changing labor market conditions. Public expenditures on family support are relatively low and the weak public policy support of work-family balance in Japan is well documented (Schoppa 2006; Yu 2009). Combined with rapid improvements in educational attainment for women and large economic returns to higher education, this environment looks very similar to that thought to underlie the growing bifurcation in family behavior in the U.S. Also similar to the U.S. are growing income inequality (Ohtake 2005) and growing disparities in educational attainment and in the employment opportunities available to men and women. In the next chapter, we provide an overview of these changes, elaborate their potential implications for family bifurcation, and summarize empirical evidence of growing educational differences in several aspects of family behavior.

Another more fundamental argument against the potential for growing family bifurcation might be that Japan is not actually experiencing the second demographic transition, so there is thus little reason to expect a pattern of diverging destinies. However, this argument makes sense only if one takes a rather narrow view of the second demographic transition and if one views a pattern of family bifurcation as something that is conditional on the second demographic transition. In our view, neither of these stances are particularly helpful—there are no universally accepted criteria for what constitutes a second demographic transition country and there is no strong reason to expect that the pattern of diverging destinies described above depends on all features of the second demographic transition (however defined) being present. Furthermore, there is also disagreement about whether observed patterns of family bifurcation should be incorporated within the second demographic transition or treated as an alternative framework for understanding family change (Perelli-Harris et al. 2010). As we discuss in the next chapter, focusing on countries like Japan is valuable precisely because of this theoretical ambiguity.

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