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Investing in global group home — while telling kids to ‘smile’

by Amy Chavez

As part of the Liberal Democratic Party’s “national resilience plan” to protect against natural and made-made disasters, I noticed one obvious natural disaster missing from the list: aging.

Aging is bringing this country to ruins. Not only can the current pension system not support a population with one of the longest life spans in the world, but the decreasing birthrate, lack of jobs and low tolerance for immigration are exacerbating Japan’s path to self-destruction.

Shiraishi Island, where I live, is a perfect example. Our population is declining so fast that soon we will no longer be an island — we’ll be just an islet. Yet these Seto Inland Sea islands are a potential gold mine for young people who could cultivate businesses built on tourism, agriculture and natural living. But the older people, the ones who run the country, can’t see it.

If you’re elderly in Japan, your concern isn’t the future of the nation. Take this conversation I had with a taxi driver.

“I’ve been a taxi driver for 47 years!” the driver says proudly while whisking me from the train station to my next destination. “I’m the oldest person at my company.”

“Are you going to retire soon?” I ask.

“I get ¥250,000 per month from the taxi company pension fund, ¥60,000 per month from the government pension program and another ¥250,000 per month because I’m still working. I have over ¥500,000 per month to live on. Why would I retire?”

“But you don’t need to work anymore,” I pointed out.

“Oh, but what would I do otherwise?” he said. My jaw dropped.

“Well, you could give your job to a young person who needs it,” I didn’t say.

“If I retired, I’d just sit around the house and that would be no good,” he continued. “I’m 68 years old and figure I have another 10 years of work left in me.”

In my home country, the common sentiment among retirees is, “I’m so busy, I wonder how I ever found time to work!” But the Japanese have a different kind of problem: All they’ve ever known is work. It becomes the defining activity of their existence and their status in society.

And face it, Japan is a great place to live if you’re elderly: great health care, advanced robotics and a good pension. They’re king.

The medical system is so good that a fledgling medical tourism trade is developing, attracting people from other Asian countries who come to Japan for medical treatment.

So, in order to boost population and spending in Japan, maybe we should be courting the elderly of the world! We could get them to move to Japan to spend their money here in our Global Group Home while spurring yet more jobs for the young people.

We need a campaign right now: Come to Japan and age like good cheese! Do you see yourself as a hunk of gorgonzola? A wheel of gouda? The hole in the Swiss cheese? Come and age with the best! No matter how you smell, or how many blue veins you have, we welcome your age and wisdom!

Or perhaps you’d like to take part in a little fermentation, like a good wine? Japan’s countryside is the answer! Just make sure you bring plenty of money for the end of life harvest.

With the great state of affairs of the elderly, it was a poignant moment when I got out of the taxi and walked past an elementary school. What would the world be like for those kids in another 60 years?

A sign was posted at the entrance to the school grounds that said “Egao!” (“Smile!”)

These kids are growing up in a debt-ridden country with declining population and poor job prospects for the future. Smile! They spend a disproportionate amount of time studying for entrance exams to get into kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school and university. Smile!

They’re sent to cram school, and if they still don’t pass the entrance exam into their preferred university, they become ronin who have to stay behind to study an extra year and try again. Smile!

And after university, when they do get a job, they’ll pay more in pension payments, they’ll retire much later, and they’ll enjoy fewer retirement benefits. All this so they can take care of grandma and grandpa now, who are living on the best pension system ever while working a part-time job as a “hobby.”

Uh-huh. Let’s just hope that Japan will be a vastly different place by the time these kids reach retirement.

But what struck me even more was that someone thought it necessary to remind little kids to smile. I can think of some old grumpy people who could use such a sign. But elementary school kids? Without a care in the world, aren’t kids blissfully happy already?

Perhaps more than being just a sign, it’s more a sign of the times.

You constantly hear that kids these days don’t sit down and have conversations anymore. They get all their information from the Internet or on their smartphones. So perhaps the “smile” sign is just an attempt to communicate with them via a medium they are used to: random messages hanging in the air like cyberspace.

Soon the school will make the sign digital, progressively blinking the word “smile” across the screen from right to left, ending with a digital cup of steaming ramen behind it.

The school may even start a text messaging scheme, where every morning the students get a message on their phones that says: “Hello, R U there? Smile!”

And next, to be able to communicate with kids when they are on holidays abroad, the school will employ Skype: “Hello? Can you hear me? Hello? Helloooo? I can’t hear you. Can you hear me? Hello? Smile!”

But one thing is for sure. Smiling is good for the soul. And it goes well with a good glass of fermented wine and aged cheese too. It’s a good thing to never forget to smile, because there will be a time in the near future when that’s all there is left to do.