Aging in Japan Essay Summary

Aging in Japan


Historically, Japan has been a leading global figure, full of rich culture, economic stability, and progressive development.  Yet today, Japan finds itself shifting from a promising past into an uncertain future as a result of its aging society.  Every country worldwide deals with the natural aging continuance of its citizens and has to accommodate the changes which surface as a result.  For Japan, these growing pains prove to be intense and complicated, attributing to an alteration in social and economic policies.  Various factors exist which contribute to this situation in its entirety and in examining these aspects, it remains apparent that no simple solution prevails.  However, in looking at Japan’s shifting structures and comparing them to those of the United States, we gain a better understanding of the social and economic complexities in existence worldwide.


Japan’s population is aging more swiftly than any population in history.  Over the next fifty years, the number of non-elderly will decline, while the number of elderly will increase.    And it has been proposed that Japan will be the first developed nation to fall below the ratio of three working adults to each elder.   This growing proportion of elderly persons will put a huge burden on the melting number of working people.  With such projections, sociologists worldwide are trying to discover why Japan finds themselves in this predicament.  In researching this topic, I found that the main factors include low fertility, declining marriage, and longer life expectancy.


The main cause of Japan’s demographic trend resides within their low fertility rate, which compares the number of births per one thousand women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.   Today, Japan’s fertility rate is 1.39, one of the lowest in the world, whereas the United States has a fertility rate of 2.03.   Since contraception and abortion became available in 1960, the fertility of older Japanese women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four has declined dramatically.   Overall, this not only leads to fewer people today but fewer people tomorrow as well, since present actions will result in a smaller number of childbearing women in two or three decades.  Japan’s population is estimated to peak at around 127 million by 2007, and then near the end of the century, drop by half.   This plunging birthrate does not provide an easy explanation, but statistics show that it mostly stems from a decline in marriages.


To counteract Japan’s declining birthrate, the number of married persons needs to increase.  However, statistics show that a large amount of Japan’s middle class continues to delay marriage and childbearing.  Since 1970, the number of unmarried women in their late twenties has tripled to just under fifty percent.   These millions of individual decisions combine and create enormous consequences for Japan as a whole.  Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University, thinks that the main reason for declining marriages in Japan deals with economics.


Nearly seventy percent of unmarried women in their early thirties still reside with their parents, allowing them to engage in a more comfortable lifestyle.  When this single lifestyle is compared to that of a typical married Japanese, marriage does not possess as much economic advantage.   Other factors influencing marriage are the rigidity of Japan’s lifetime-employment system, which shifts one’s attention from family onto a career, and the lack of agreement between Japanese men and women in terms of engagement.


Japan is known for its longevity and with such a high life expectancy rate, its aging population will remain large and in the picture for many years.  Since 1960, the mortality decline among the elderly and middle-aged has contributed to the increase in Japan’s life expectancy, which continues to increase at an accelerating rate.  In 1995, the life expectancy in Japan was 76.6 for men and 83 for women.  By 2020, the female life expectancy will be 90.  As a result, the average retirement age is 62.1 for men and 61 for women.  This aging population is also growing in size.  In 1995, people over sixty-five composed 14.5% of the Japanese population.  It has been projected that by 2025, those sixty-five and older will become 25.8% of the population.


In examining all of these factors, it becomes clear that, indeed, Japan’s population is aging.  So, what exactly are the consequences requiring concern?  For one, the rapid increase in the number of elderly persons presents a major challenge when considering health care and quality of life.  Social and economic changes must occur in order to accommodate the increasing medical costs and strains placed on society and family.  And Japan’s public pension system needs updating, which policymakers have yet to respond to.  In regards to caregiving, support for aging relatives by family members is steadily declining in Japan and more elderly persons must turn to alternative means of care and support.


Also, Japan possesses the need to keep elderly workers in the labor force. Already, Japan has a high degree of elderly participation within the workforce, noticeable in the fact that 71.4% of men and 39.2% of women between the ages of sixty and sixty-four are employed.  In comparing those statistics to the U.S., 54.2% of men and 35.3% of women in the same age bracket are employed.   However, Japan needs to increase the productivity of elderly workers from part-time to full-time in order to help offset the decreasing middle-aged population.


These occurrences in Japan remain even more significant than most people realize because they mirror similar situations developing in Europe and the United States, although neither the U.S. nor Europe faces the severity of Japan’s dilemma.  Yet, like Japan, America is growing older and questions have surfaced regarding the future sustainability of Social Security and Medicare systems.   In the United States, concerns with population aging are often connected to the “Baby Boom” generation of post World War II.  In Japan, the “Baby Boom” only lasted for a few years, whereas it lasted for twenty in the U.S.


This surge in population threatens the funds offered by the U.S. government, and it has been charted that by 2038 Social Security funds will be exhausted.  The Social Security System works on a balance between workers paying into the fund and beneficiaries.  Today, the ratio is 3.4:1 and it is expected to drop to 2:1 by 2030.  And the fact that the U.S. fertility rate continues to decrease, like Japan’s, means that there will be fewer and fewer workers supporting the nation’s elderly.  Another demographic challenge for the U.S. is that people are retiring early and living longer.  With longer life expectancy, more people will draw upon government funds for longer periods of time.


All human beings get older, no matter what language or skin color you stem from.  As mentioned above, various components of aging initiate change within society, especially in regards to social and economic foundations.   Each country interacts with these circumstances in different ways and at different intensities, but an interweaving pattern exists.  For Japan, growing older has challenged its strength as a nation.  The United States faces a similar challenge, but to a less drastic degree.  Each, though, will have to adapt and shift its way of life or else risk losing their power within the global market.



Annotated Bibliography


Belsie, Laurent.  “Boomers Reshape Culture, Again.”  Christian Science Monitor.  5/15/2001.  Vol. 93, Issue 119, p. 1.


Belsie, a staff writer of The Christain Science Monitor, focuses on the implications of the median age of the U.S. population as a result of the baby-boom generation.  She talks about the social and political effects of this generation on American society, specifically dealing with Social Security and Medicare.


Bovbjerg, Barbara.  “Straight Shooting on Social Security: The Trade-offs of Reform.”  FDCH Congressional Testimony.  12/10/2001.


Bovbjerg, director of education, workforce, and income security issues in the United States, details a speech given to the U.S. Senate during a special committee on aging.  She outlines some of the social security challenges facing America, describes various proposals for overcoming these challenges and suggests some reforms that should occur.


Butler, Steven, and Kevin Whitelaw.  “Japan’s Baby Bust.”  U.S. News and World Report.  10/05/98.  Vol. 125, Issue 13, p. 42.


Butler and Whitelaw examine the declining birth rate in Japan and the choices between career and family.  They also look at the impact of low fertility on Japan’s economy and the proportion of unmarried women in their 20’s.  Other things they focus on are the rigidity of Japan’s lifetime-employment system, the rejection of traditional marital views, and population growth worldwide.


Chee, Yeon Kyung, and Kimberly Dash.  “Development and Implementation of a Train-the-Trainer.”  Educational Gerontology.  July/August 1998.  Vol. 24, Issue 5, p.509.


Chee, from the Department of Social Medicine and Division on Aging at Harvard Medical School, describes Japan’s rapidly aging society and the shift they are undergoing as a nation.  The article focuses on ways to ensure aging individuals continue to succeed physically, psychologically, and socially in their daily living, and examines ways to promote health and proper caregiving.


Efron, Sonni.  “Japan’s Aging Population Creates a “Nursing Hell” for Many Women.”  6/25/01.  Visited 10/10/02.


Sonni Efron, a Times Staff Writer who recently spent four and a half years in Japan, discusses the aging situation occurring in Japan and how it is specifically affecting Japanese women.  She briefly examines some reasons Japan resides in this current setting and predicts future problems.  Most of all, she explores how this problem is changing the daily lives and roles of women and how it is contributing to higher stress levels emotionally and financially.


Fujiwara, Mariko Kuno.  “Japan Faces a Silver Society.”  Japan Information Network.  Visited 10/10/02.


This website, directed by Fujiwara, offers a variety of hot topics currently occurring in Japan.  More specifically, this website contains a Focus One section, which focuses specifically on the Japanese elderly.  It examines four profile cases and the areas contributing to the problem as a whole, such as elderly care, jobs, cost, pensions, leisure, etc.


Imanaka, Rie.  “Aging in Japan.”  9/11/01.  Visited 10/10/02.


Imanaka, a Japanese young adult presently living in Japan, discusses the deterioration of Japan’s financial and social security as a result of unbalanced age groups.  He alludes to Japan’s top-heavy social pyramid, wherein middle-class citizens and youth are trying to support an overbearing elderly population.


Mackellar, Landis, and David Horlacher.  “Population Aging in Japan.”  The European Journal of Social Sciences.  Dec. 2000. Vol. 13, Issue 4, p. 413.


Landis and Horlacher describe many aspects in regards to the aging problem in Japan.  They focus on the causes of Japan’s low fertility, economic impacts, pension and health systems, labor, and the impact on population by age group.


Muhleisen, Martin and Hamid Faruqee.  Japan: Population Aging and the Fiscal Challenge.  Visited 10/08/02.


Muhleisen and Faruqee, both Senior Economists at IMF, focus on the financial predicament Japan faces with it’s over the populated elderly class.  As prosperity has increased in Japan, birth rates have decreased and the result is that there are fewer and fewer people to financially support public pension systems.  These systems are running out of money.  They also question how these problems will affect this industrial country in the future and examine how Japan’s situation is mirroring what is happening in other countries worldwide.


Takashi, Oshio.  “Outlook for Japan’s Aging Society.”  Japan Economic Foundation.  Visited 10/01/02.


Oshio Takashi is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University and specializes in social security issues.  In this article, he examines the need for social reform in Japan as a result of low birth rates and increased aging populations.  This reform is needed to reduce the burden for future generations.  Takashi looks at not only how this situation is affecting pension plans, but also how it is creating turbulence in medical care programs as well.


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