Japan May Celebrate Its Elderly, But Who Will Care For Them in the Future?

Rising life expectancy and declining fertility in the country could pose drastic social and economic effects if they are not adequately addressed.

More than 25% of Japan’s population is 65 or older. Credit: Reuters

More than 25% of Japan’s population is 65 or older. Credit: Reuters

Tokyo: I moved to Tokyo three weeks ago, after a four-year stint in Jakarta. It’s a startling change. At the risk of generalising, Indonesia is boisterous, but easy going. Japan is quiet and a stickler for rules and efficiency. Indonesians are young and the furrowed brows of policymakers in Jakarta are a result of schemes to ensure their demographic dividend does not become a Malthusian catastrophe. The Japanese are old and their policymakers are worried about the economics of an ageing society.

A few days ago, I too had a furrowed brow. As I took my progeny to their new school, I was handed the dreaded school calendar on which all the public holidays were marked in red. These were the days when instead of writing productively while sipping specialty hot coffee, I would spend my waking hours yelling at my children to behave while they argued, spilled drinks and asked me difficult theological questions (Mama where does God go to the toilet?). My heart sank as I realised the very first red lettered day, September 19, was only a few days into the term.

I thought uncharitable thoughts about whichever national leader/God/seasonal occurrence was responsible for depriving me, sorry, I mean my kids, of school. This was until I read that the occasion was the gloriously Confucian-sounding Respect for the Aged Day.

At that moment, all rancour vanished (somewhat helped by the fact that unlike their Japanese counterparts, the international school my kids went to did not close on this day, which I suppose is based on the reasonable premise that non-Japanese children are somewhat short on respect for the elderly).

There was something so wise and elegant about the appreciation of age in a world that is overly enamoured by the passions and distractions of youth, that it was like prising tea and the music of cicadas over cheap whisky and trance.

My point of view admittedly is coloured by the fact that it has been a while since my own whiskey and trance days. In fact, I am no longer a stranger to lower back pain. The most exciting thing that happens to me these days is getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. But researching keirō no hi or Respect for the Aged Day turned out to be quite thrilling as well.

On this day, the volunteers – many of whom are school children – distribute free, boxed lunches to neighbourhood senior citizens. Kindergartens ask their grandparents to visit. In rural areas, keiro kai shows are held where village elders are entertained with rehearsed songs and dances. They are also treated to lunch and sweets after the performance.

I spoke to Maho Furuya, a Japanese friend from my university days in England, who currently works in a family-run health food business in Tokyo, about how she celebrates the festival. “We will bring our children to their grandparents’ house and give some presents and eat dinner together and we express our many thanks to the grandparents,” she explained.

More than 25% of Japan’s population is 65 or older today, but the origins of keirō no hi date back to a time when the average Japanese was considerably less mature in age.

The first “day of the aged” was celebrated on September 15, 1947 in a small town in the country’s Hyogo Prefecture. Given that veneration of age and experience was in any case a part of the culture, the idea caught on and in 1966 the Japanese government declared it a national holiday to be held on the third Monday of every September.

The celebration of longevity has centuries-old roots in Japan. The Japanese elite of the Nara period (AD 710-794) marked the arrival of life’s autumn when a person turned the ripe age of 40. By the Edo period (1603-1868), such celebrations had become commonplace even among the general populace. A crucial birthday was the 60th, called kanreki, which was believed to mark the completion of one full life circle, therefore representing a kind of rebirth or return to childhood.

Rather than handing their aged adult diapers and pointing them to the nearest nursing home, in Japan, kanreki was (and still is) observed with all kinds of elaborate rituals, including a banquet where the birthday boy or girl is presented with a red coat and cap while seated on a red cushion. Red is the color of youth in Japan, with the literal meaning of the Japanese word for baby, aka chan, being ‘little red one.’

Special birthdays in Japan are all colour coded. Seventieth (koki) and 77th (kiju) birthday festivities feature purple, as it is the mostly highly regarded colour in Sino-Japanese divination (omyodo). The (once) extremely rare, 80th (sanju), 81st (hanju) and especially 88th (beiju) birthdays are celebrated with golden brown or yellow clothing and cushions. The appropriate colour for 90th (sotsuju) and 99th (hakuju) fiestas is white.

The fact that the Japanese have a special place in their society for the aged is even reflected in the language, which is as fertile in vocabulary for ways to refer to the elderly as the Eskimos have words pertaining to snow.  There is kōreisha, literally meaning, ‘person of high age’, toshiyori or ‘person of advanced age’, jukunen that refers to mature years and jitsunen, a relatively recent coinage, that translates as ‘true years’. Rojin or old person used to be a commonly used word, but now it has negative associations like senility. Given the Japanese penchant for loan words from English, there is shinia from ‘senior,’ allowing for expressions such as shinia-sedai or senior generation.

The reason behind the emergence of such creative vocabulary referring to old age can best be understood in light of Japan’s rapidly ageing population. In 1935, life expectancy was just 46.92 for men and 49.63 for women. It is currently 80.79 for men and 87.05 for women. The government announces the latest statistics pertaining to senior citizens on every Respect for the Aged Day. Last year, the number of centenarians topped 65,000 for the first time, hitting a record high for the 46th straight year. When age-related statistics began to be compiled in 1963, Japan had only 153 centenarians.

The ageing of Japan is an indication of emulation-worthy achievements. People are living longer and healthier lives in Japan than anywhere else. The diet is excellent, the air is clean and there is a quiet consideration for others that I’m sure has a knockon effect on longevity. After four years of eating deep fried food in polluted Jakarta, I like to imagine that I can actually feel the rejuvenating effects of Miso soup and the exercise involved in walking up and down the stairs of the Tokyo metro.

But a combination of life expectancy and declining fertility (the country has the lowest birth-rates in the world at just 1.4 children per woman) also pose several challenges and it is unclear whether and how Japan will be able to adequately address them. By 2060, a boggling 40% of the population will be over 65 and the overall population is expected to shrink from 127 million to about 90 million. The social and economic side effects of such drastic demographic change are uncharted.

Who will pay for the bill? Who will provide the care for all the elderly? The 2.3 workers who supported every senior via social security payments in 2015 are projected to drop to 1.3 by 2060. The financial burdens of this will be huge. Already the cost of social security (the vast majority of which is accounted by pensions and medical care for seniors) is over 30% of national income. In contrast, payouts in 1970 comprised only some 5.8% of national income.

The solution, depending on whom you talk to, is more children, more immigrants or more robots. The most sensible strategy will probably involve some combination of these. What is not up for debate is that on Respect for the Aged Day, the proportion of those being feted will only grow larger compared to those doing the feting.

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