The Ageing Population of Japan

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The ageing of Japan is thought to outweigh all other nations, as they have the highest proportion of elderly citizens worldwide.The population has been rapidly increasing, as the proportion of elderly people (65 years old/older) was about 5% in the 1950s, then due to economic growth, the total population increased with the elderly being about 25% in 2015. This increasing trend is predicted to reach 30% in 2025 and 40% in 2055 .

However, the economic growth that occurred between the 1960s and 1980s led to severe cases of rural depopulation in the time. With a high demand for industrial jobs, young people moved from the countryside to the city. This migration left areas across Japan that were traditionally more agricultural with much smaller populations and further contributed to the ageing populations in these areas. The move also resulted in a baby boomer generation in urban areas causing a rare case in which you can find rapidly ageing populations within urban Japan as well as rural Japan .

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While many older people still reside in the care of their families, more are shifting towards long-term care facilities. Healthy senior citizens, that have no need to reside in long-term care, are also facing growing isolation as their friends and neighbours pass away or move somewhere else (Coulmas, 2007).

In an annual report on Japan’s ageing population, the Japanese government conducted a survey amongst 1,480 elderly people. When asked about “Kodokushi” a Japanese term that describes dying alone without being discovered for an extended period of time, 44.5% stated it was an issue that they could somewhat relate to themselves. Another survey in the same report also asked the seniors to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest. Women had an average score of 6.96, and men had an average score of 5.83.

 Japanese society has long-standing traditional values of caring for one’s elders, with many cultural values left over from the former patriarchal system, where the eldest son’s family was responsible for taking care of his elderly parents. What has followed this trend is a social stigma of institutionalizing older people, being considered to suggest family neglect, abandonment and shame. Even though institutionalization is constantly becoming more socially accepted, it is still surrounded by a certain level of stigma.

Studies have shown that old people address the lack of good infrastructure and public transportation as the hardest part of living where they do. While Americans are used to driving and most families have several cars, Japanese people rely much more heavily on public transportation and find that having to drive all the time is inconvenient (high prices for parking, vehicle maintenance, bad road conditions, etc.). Japan can rely this heavily on public transportation because it is such a small country and most areas of interest are within close distance to each other.

Commuting is becoming too tedious and tiring for the elderly and they are left in the rural areas. There is grocery trucks that deliver groceries to the elderly because they don’t have the transportation to leave their homes. Many stores are not operating anymore due to fewer customers and it leaves the elderly left with a further commute to the stores. The elderly is left alone and the population is only decreasing from here on out. Many houses are empty and less people are working in the fields. Many children leave the rural areas of Japan to work in major in cities such as Osaka or Tokyo.

Japanese society places a high importance on having a strong spirit of cooperation, which has been shown throughout the years when the Japanese nation has come together in times of tragedy (such as natural disasters), and worked together to rebuild. Similarly, the elder care crisis has sparked widespread establishment of volunteer organizations.

An example of this is volunteer-led dementia care and support all over the country, 5.4 million trained volunteers known as “dementia friends” are being managed by only four paid staff members. Free from bureaucratic burdens, many of them are forming task forces and developing new and imaginative ways of caring for sufferers of dementia. This includes such things as weekly open houses for dementia patients and their careers, along with neighbourhood-watch style networks, established to look out for so-called “wanderers,” people with dementia that may become lost or confused when away from home . Despite volunteerism helping plug the holes in the elder care system, the problem persists in modern Japan and is growing exponentially as the population ages.

Since 1995, efforts have also been made to improve the physical infrastructure of rural towns with the result that there is a barrier-free train station and bus terminal, public toilets, benches, automatic/sliding doors and level entry into most high street shops. This has all been achieved by piecing together various measures and regeneration grants from the Japanese Central Government. The public bus services began using easy-access vehicles in 1998, enabling older people to get out and about, which not only increases their spending in the locality but also provides exercise and social benefits (Kirkwood, 2001). The association of 50 local shops began a telephone shopping and free delivery service for those who cannot access the town centre even with transport provided. One of the great benefits of this system for older people is that as little as one item can be ordered and delivered.

While the ageing population of Japan is a difficult, multi-faceted issue, there are many approaches that could be taken by the Japanese government or other organisations to lessen its ill effects. 

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