Now that the special, once-a-decade occurrence known as Silver Week is behind us, it’s perhaps worth noting that Keirō no Hi (敬老の日, Respect the Aged Day) was swallowed up in the holidays and virtually ignored.
Witness a scene that unfolded on the Tokaido Line one Sunday evening: An elderly man and woman boarded the train at Kawasaki and moved over to the yūsenseki (優先席, priority seats) designated for the elderly, pregnant women and people with disabilities. The man stood in front of a much younger man (presumed to be in his 30s) sitting there, headphones plugged in and fast asleep.
After waiting a few minutes, the elderly man said in a voice loud enough to penetrate those headphones: “Watashitachi no wakai koro wa chanto toshiyori ni seki o yuzutta mon da. Ima wa tanuki-neiri o suru yatsu bakari da” (わたしたちの若い頃はちゃんと年寄りに席を譲ったもんだ。今は狸寝入りをするやつばかりだ, “When we were young, we would always give up our seats for the elderly. Now, the young just pretend to sleep and refuse to take notice”). At this, the younger man opened his eyes and said: “Ore wa nichiyō ni hataraitekitan da. Anta wa asonde nenkin moratten daro? Anta no nenkin haratten no wa ore nan dayo!” (俺は日曜に働いてきたんだ。あんたは遊んで年金もらってんだろう？ あんたの年金払ってんのは俺なんだよ, “I had to work on a Sunday. You’re just playing around and drawing a pension. I’m the one who’s paying for your pension, OK?”).
The older man didn’t say a word and got off at the next station. The younger guy sank back into his seat.
This incident is emblematic of the biggest problem Japan faces today: Society is rapidly aging while the dwindling populace of young people are left with the tab, with the refrain of “Nattoku ikanai” (納得いかない, “I can’t swallow this”) ringing in their heads. More than 10 million people on this archipelago are over 80 years old. Just add another 3 million to that number and it would equal the entire population of Tokyo.
“Doko ni itte mo ojiichan, obāchan bakkari” (どこに行ってもおじいちゃん、おばあちゃんばっかり, “I see grandfathers and grandmothers everywhere I go”), says my young friend Fuyuka, who has lived all of her 23 years in Shinagawa, in a house close to one of the oldest and most popular shōtengai (商店街, shopping arcades) in Tokyo. Now the shopkeepers have aged and many of the surrounding houses have been razed to make way for office buildings.
When Fuyuka was growing up, there were four shōgakkō (小学校, elementary schools) in her district; now there’s only one. The shōtengai goes dark after 8 p.m., and almost every shop closes its shutters save for a handful of bars. These are usually packed with men over 60 who have been shooed out of the house by their wives, or, a more likely scenario: They are drowning their loneliness in alcohol. Among divorces nationwide, the proportion that are jukunen rikon (熟年離婚, divorces among couples who have been married for 25 years or more) has been rising since 2008, according to welfare ministry figures. Fuyuka says she doesn’t mind that society is aging right before her eyes so much as the fact that so many otoshiyori (お年寄り, “revered elderly”) seem kodoku (孤独, isolated) — or not very pleasant.
Actually, many of Japan’s otoshiyori are much hardier than they seem. The media tend to portray them as sweet and vulnerable, or bowed down from decades of hard work and nintai (忍耐, endurance) in the ranks of Nippon Kabushikigaisha (日本株式会社, Japan Inc.). But the rate of violent crime among seniors is on the rise, as is the number of stalkers over 65. These days, there are places called asakyaba (朝 キャバ, morning kyabakura, or cabaret clubs) open from 5 a.m., catering to elderly men, who are notorious for rising early and going out and about. Some of these men wind up blowing most of their nenkin (年金, pensions) at kyabakura or sex shops and take to crime just to pay the bills. Women are better at riding out the waves of old age, but they’re more susceptible to the perils of furikomesagi (振り込め詐欺, money transfer scams).
The general feeling among the elderly is that they have worked themselves to the bone their entire lives, and now they deserve to relax and have fun. Society, on the other hand, is becoming less sympathetic to this view. As with the young man in the train, an increasing number of Japanese refuse to see the old as helpless or needing assistance — which is why people rarely give up their seats on trains and buses, or offer to carry bags for old ladies gingerly making their way through the streets.
We should be connected by the bond of Japanese industriousness (if nothing else), but sadly that seems to have frayed. Though, by the way, Kinrōkansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日, Labor Thanksgiving Day) comes up next month.