Will Japan disappear?

The International Federation of Petits Frères des Pauvres, beyond sharing the activities of its members, wishes to allow everyone to understand the issues of aging in the world. The objective is to take up a subject related to the missions of our international network, to analyze it, to dissect it, in order to better understand the current issues.

The twenty-first century will be marked by a major demographic crisis. For a few years now, the media, but also the politicians, have been getting hold of the subject. Hitherto relegated to the background, the demographic “bomb” is now emerging as the challenge of tomorrow.

The International Federation of Petits Frères des Pauvres has decided to take an interest in the oldest country in the world: Japan. Considered the world’s laboratory, Japan has been trying for the past fifteen years to fight against the aging of its population and the effects it generates. This is a chimerical project which Japan cannot avoid; the survival of the nation is at stake. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe understood it when he described the demographic decline of his population as a “national crisis”.

 

Japan, a country endangered…

The observation is terrible, the Japanese population is in tailspin since 2005. Japan has the highest percentage of people over 65 years old in the world: 28% in 2018. If this trend continues, the total Japanese population could be divided by two in a century. This demographic crisis is now a global phenomenon and is determined by three main factors.

The first cause of this crisis is obviously the aging of the Japanese population. From 1947 to 1949, 2.5 million Japanese were born, these baby boomers had children who are now also aging. The second factor is the increase in life expectancy, today four generations living together. Life expectancy in Japan is 84 years, the country with the longest life expectancy in the world. Finally, the third factor is the declining birth rate. Currently, Japan has a lower birth rate than death rate. In 2021, the country had 811,064 births, the lowest number of births since 1899. This phenomenon is partly explained by a declining fertility rate, but also by profound cultural changes. The emancipation of women, the lengthening of studies, the professional career, the decline of the traditional couple are all criteria to be considered to analyze this low birth rate.

Faced with this demographic emergency, Japan has had to look for economic, social and health solutions. For several years, the Japanese society has been trying to reinvent itself in order not to disappear. Let’s see how the Japanese state faces the consequences of its aging population.

 

Solutions at all costs

Older people at work

To minimize the economic impact of Japan’s aging and declining population, the government is focusing on increasing productivity and work participation. To do this, companies are lowering, or even removing, the retirement age. These solutions, far from our European philosophies, are essential for Japanese companies facing labor shortages. Many senior citizens have no other choice than to continue working to live decently. These business decisions accompany policy reforms that promote the employment of senior citizens. For example, a policy reform obliges companies to offer employment contracts to their employees over the age of 65. The legal retirement age in 2025 will be 65. It is estimated that more than half of the people who are between 60 and 70 years old are still working in Japan.

Will innovation replace families?

But what about the elderly who are no longer able to work, who are ill or demented? Until the 1990s, following the Confucian family model the elderly were most often dependent on the wife of their eldest son. She was supposed to be a housewife. Today, access to health care but also the evolution of morals has changed the situation. Japan is striving to keep its elderly in their homes and favors solutions that encourage autonomy. To achieve this, the country is relying heavily on the development of research and innovation. Numerous medical research centers exist. Japan is considered a pioneer in the prevention and treatment of diseases and disabilities of the elderly. This research is crucial in order to cope with rising health care costs and an outdated social welfare system.

The Japanese government has relied on robotics to support its aging population. Care facilities and care services are now overcrowded. The government has decided to use robots to help the nursing staff. Even if this device is not yet widely deployed in the country, it has proved its worth. Far from the humanoid robots of science-fiction movies, these are assisting robots, carried by caregivers to reduce certain loads, or communication-monitoring robots. The objective is to lighten the workload of the nursing staff, while improving the quality of care of the assisted persons.

Citizen mobilization: a solution to cope with aging

The government is banking on the emergence of community actions. The Japanese society is multiplying solidarity initiatives. Numerous community cafés have been created throughout the country, allowing elderly people to meet and share warm moments. Programs have also been set up with certain companies. Postal or gas employees tasked with spotting an abnormal accumulation of mail or a suspicious gas meter reading. Another example of a notable initiative is Masue Katayama, a 78-year-old entrepreneur who has created her own network of retirement homes accessible to all. This Japanese woman started from an unfortunate observation: before, two solutions were offered to the elderly, public retirement homes in poor condition, or private, but very expensive. Unfortunately, this kind of entrepreneurial initiative is too rare given the magnitude of the situation.

 

A system in danger

Japanese government and its population are now awareness, but these measures admit their limits and are not sufficient in the face of the scale of the situation. Indeed, the elderly constitute a part of the population more inclined to isolation and precariousness.

Even if the efforts made by the Japanese government are undeniable, the reality is hard. Thus, 25.4% of the population over 75 years old live below the poverty line, compared to 16.1% for the average of the OECD countries. It is now considered that one out of three elderly people is poor in Japan. The numbers are staggering, but the math is simple. The annual income level below which a person is considered poor in Japan is 1.22 million yen (€10,350) while a full pension is 804,200 yen (€7,211). Without any savings, assistance, or pension supplement, it is impossible for an elderly person to live adequately.

What are signs of it?

Unfortunately, insecurity and isolation are closely linked. The economic hardship that the elderly face has an impact on their social life. It is estimated that 6 million Japanese seniors are totally isolated. So much so that in Japan, kodokushi (孤独死, “lonely death”) is a veritable growing phenomenon in society. This sad term refers to people dying alone in their homes and whose bodies are discovered only after a long time. There are 30,000 “kodokushi” cases nationwide each year, and 3,000 in Tokyo. This is a 70% increase from 2005, and the trend is likely to increase according to many experts.

According to a survey conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the proportion of homeless people aged 70 or older in Japan reached 34.4% in 2021. More than one in three homeless people. That figure was 19.7% in 2016. This figure is the source of an implausible new social phenomenon. In Japan, for the past few years, it has been observed that elderly people deliberately commit minor crimes in order to be imprisoned. In detention, they will be sure to be fed, housed, and even enjoy the company of their fellow inmates. This phenomenon is unfortunately growing, as by 2020, the number of offenders over the age of 60 has doubled. The Covid health crisis that exacerbated inequalities obviously did not help the cause of the elderly.

 

The International Federation of Petits Frères des Pauvres (PFP) works every day to animate an international network of associations fighting against isolation and to share the missions of PFP throughout the world. More than ever in this climate of tension and imbalance, the social and economic systems of our societies are under threat. Japan is now facing a demographic crisis that most of the world’s countries will have to face soon. In this context, the action of the International Federation of PFP is more than ever justified and necessary.

Together, let’s fight against the precariousness and isolation of the elderly.

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