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Fountain of trouble

Julian Ryall, TokyoSeptember 18, 2013

Respect for the Aged Day is symbolic of the respect that is afforded to the elderly in Japan. But with one in four of its population aged 65 or over, the country is facing what experts suggest is a demographic time bomb.

Old Japanese woman visits the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine in Kioto.
Image: imago stock&people

In April 2011, Jiroemon Kimura overtook the record to become the oldest living man in the world. By the time he died in June of this year, at the remarkable age of 116 years and 54 days, he was the last know living man to be born in the 19th century.

Kimura, who lived in Kyoto Prefecture, was born in 1897, the year in which William McKinley became president of the United States, Guglielmo Marconi sent the first ever wireless message and Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee.

Kimura's achievement brought him attention from around the world, but the duration of his life will inevitably be surpassed in the future. And it is likely that it will be surpassed by another Japanese.

On September 16, Japan celebrated the Respect for the Aged Day, but the national holiday was tinged with concern due to the government statistics that were released to coincide with the occasion.

Fully 25 percent of the 126.65 million people in Japan are 65 years old or older, a total of 31.86 million and an increase of 1.12 million people on the same time one year earlier. Of the total, 13.69 were men and 18.18 million were women, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said, with the average life span for a Japanese man now standing at 79.94 years and a woman living for 86.41 years.

A commuter (L) on the Yurikamome Line, which will be used as one of the main lines if Tokyo is selected as the host city for the 2020 Olympics, rides the train in Tokyo, Japan, 06 September 2013. (Photo: EPA/CHRISTOPHER JUE)
Experts worry there will not be enough people to drive Japan's economyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

54,397 aged 100 or older

The number of people aged 100 or older also increased dramatically, up by 3,021 to a total of 54,397.

The increased longevity of Japanese people is put down to a traditionally healthy diet that is high in fish, vegetables and fruit, the excellent public healthcare system and improvements in medical care.

And while those are all positive developments, there is a distinct downside to having one of the world's most rapidly ageing societies.

"The basic problem is that there are lot of elderly people, they are healthier than ever before, they are living longer - and this problem is only going to get bigger," Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, told DW.

Japan's economic problems mean that people have less job security and less in the way of disposable income, points out Professor Dujarric. This has contributed to couples waiting longer before getting married and, consequently, having children later in life and fewer in number.

"Compared to 30 years ago, there is a great deal more economic uncertainty, while Japan has never had a flexible labor market anyway and there is still the sense here that a wife's place is in the home and raising children," he said.

19 April 2013 photo shows Jiroemon Kimura celebrating his 116th bithday at his home in Kyotango city, Kyoto prefecture, western Japan. (Photo: EPA/KYOTANGO CITY)
Jiroemon Kimura celebrated his 116th birthday on April 16 this yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Government not acted

"And even though they have known this problem was looming over us all, the Japanese government has not really done much to fix the problem," Professor Dujarric added.

"Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe has talked about an environment for women in the working population, but it's being done in a very conservative way," he said. "Officially the message is that women can take maternity leave but the undertone is that they should really stay at home."

The central government has promised additional places at nursery schools - but then negated that positive move by reducing child allowances - and some local authorities and companies have taken small-scale measures in an effort to encourage people to have more children, but they are not having a visible impact yet.

In 2011, some 1,057,000 children were born, a decline of 14,000 on the previous year.

An old man walks using a cane on the Plaza de Espana in Madrid. (Photo: Fabian Stratenschulte +++picture alliance/Fabian Stratenschulte)
Europe is also ageingImage: picture alliance/Fabian Stratenschulte

The situation is so critical that the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has warned that there will be a mere 49.59 million Japanese by 2100, a decline of more than 61 percent on the 2010 figure.

Added to the concern over the falling birth rate are the obvious economic consequences of a huge imbalance in the ages of the population. In the not-too-distant future, experts warn, there will be too few working-age people paying for the health care and pensions of the elderly population.

Severe financial strains

"The number of people in their most productive years will decline, while local governments will face severe financial strains," the experts said in their conclusion.

"So it will be crucial to take measures to turn around the falling birthrate and enhance social security measures for the elderly."

Professor Dujarric believes that if Japan wants to avoid the coming elderly crisis, it needs to follow the example of nations such as Sweden and relax immigration laws, encourage equality in the workplace, introduce measures that genuinely help families with the financial burden of raising children and, at the same time, maintain a high quality of care for the elderly in society.

That will require a fairly fundamental shift in attitudes amongst the Japanese, he agrees.

Elderly people work out with wooden dumb-bells in the grounds of a temple in Tokyo on September 17, 2012 to celebrate Japan's Respect-for-the-Aged-Day. (Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages)
Japanese celebrated Respect for the Aged Day this year on September 17Image: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/GettyImages

Others in Japan say they are already witnessing changing attitudes in society towards the elderly, although not in a positive way.

"In the past, several generations of the same family lived together and helped each other, but that has changed today," said Nobuyuki Kanematsu, the 61-year-old founder and chairman of the Association Against Ageism. "People are having fewer children, they no longer care for the elderly within the family and many older people have serious money worries.

"I would say that the situation has become dramatically worse in the last two or three years," he said. "There is less respect in society for elderly people now and we see old people who have no money and are homeless. That's no way for these people to be treated."