FANTASTIC VOYAGE: How we care for an aging population

We can calculate life expectancy in several ways, depending on the data we include. But one thing is consistent; any way you calculate it, Japan is always near the top. According to the CIA World Factbook, the life expectancy for females is 87.9 years in Japan and 82.79 years in the U.S. For males, the number is 81.92 years in Japan and 78.36 in the U.S. But perhaps a more important statistic is the dependency ratio. The elderly dependency ratio is the number of elderly people (ages 65-plus) per 100 working-age people (ages 15-64). In the U.S., there are 25.6 elderly people for every 100 working-age people. In Japan, that number is almost doubled, with 48 per 100. There are many other statistics you can use as well. The median age in the U.S. is 38.5 years, while in Japan it is 48.6 years.

But all of this points to one thing; Japan has an aging population. Exacerbating the problem is the low birthrate of 6.95 births/1,000 population (compared to the U.S. 12.28). News outlets have even reported that adult diapers outsell baby diapers in Japan! But what are the problems associated with an aging population? America is also getting older and having less children, so there is much to be learned by looking at some of the struggles that Japan has been going through.

My initial knee-jerk reaction upon hearing the negative population growth in Japan was ambivalence. I mean, everyone keeps saying that the world is overpopulated, right? More people means more food production, more cars and more CO2. So what’s the problem? And while less people may be better for the environment, it also has a lot of consequences. For example, the workers of the future pay for social security because the expectation has always been that there will be more people in the future. And not only that, but if people stop working at 65, and then go on to live until 100, that’s 35 years of support. Property, which has often been seen as a safe investment would lose value, because there would be fewer people, so less demand. Fewer people means fewer workers, and less production and GDP, which would mean less power in global affairs. Generally speaking, a decreasing population is a big problem, which will cripple the younger generation with overwhelming inherited debt that was supposed to be paid by an imagined robust, booming economy that will never materialize.

As a result of that impending crisis, there have been a lot of changes in Japan, both in legislation and shifts in attitudes and culture.

One thing I have noticed, particularly this year, is the news coverage concerning older people. The news often reports on older drivers that accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brakes, often with fatal results. This has become such a big problem, that many cars now have safety features to prevent this from happening. But with the constant barrage of news reports of older people in auto accidents, the attitude has become almost accusatory.

Many people I talk to think it’s borderline irresponsible for a person in their 80s to be driving a car. My city has developed several programs to encourage older drivers to keep off the roads, including a taxi subsidy and more extensive busing options.

Experts have also developed technology to help the aging population. There are smart watches that measure the user’s heart rate and contact a family member or emergency service upon detecting an irregularity. And there are robots that can wander around the house like pets, while simultaneously linking their camera to a caretaker’s smartphone.

Traditionally in Japan, it was the daughter-in-law’s (the eldest son’s wife’s) duty to care for the matriarch. But now, more families are living separately, and thanks to technology, older people can live more or less independently until later periods of their life.

In terms of popular media and public perception, a book released in 2020 (and later adapted to a movie) called “Inochi no Teishaba” by medical doctor and author, Kyoko Minami, addressed the culture of medical care in Japan to favor prolonging life rather than asking questions about the quality of life. And Chie Hayakawa’s award-winning movie “Plan 75” showed a dystopic Japan where the government promotes euthanasia for citizens over the age of 75.

In short, there are many ways the problem of Japan’s aging population has manifested itself in the public consciousness. But politicians have passed legislation to help alleviate the problem. One solution to promote population growth has been to give a subsidy to all families with children to help offset their various expenses. I receive such government payments that amount to about 10,000 yen ($73.15) per child per month, deposited as a lump sum three times throughout the year. (The amount varies based on how many children you have, and their ages). Another recent legislative change is the lowering of the age of adulthood from 20 to 18. While alcohol and tobacco are still limited to people 20 years and older, younger people are now able to apply for a loan, get a credit card or sign a contract or lease without parental consent. Whether this has the desired outcome of promoting financial independence from their parents and increasing marriages and birth rates is yet to be seen.

While we have known about the problem of an aging society in Japan for a while, I feel that in recent years in particular, the issue has been creeping into various aspects of life whether it’s a topic on the news, the direction and use of technology, or themes in various forms of media. Since this is slowly becoming a problem in other countries as well, I think it would be good for everyone to take a look at Japan and see how society and traditions change and also to think about how it is that we want to treat each other in an aging future.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at jeffasai@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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