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An increasingly bitter battle of the ages brews in Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • Don Corleone

    Respect and cherish your elders, spend time with them and learn their stories well.
    And while we’re at it, make more babies, you little hoodlums, someone has to pay for your future, because it’s not going to be you.

  • Omar

    People rarely give up the priority seat for pregnant women or handicapped people as well. The problem lies with the young, and their indifference to what the priority seats are intended for. This can be seen with elevators, too. Able-bodies will often rush into an elevator, while families with strollers are unable to fit and forced to wait for the next one. Japan is a contradiction, on the one hand passive and orderly, but on the other hand selfish and thoughtless.

    • Ben

      i’ve noticed too that there really are those 2 kinds of people about. it seems to me the biggest trouble is that the decent citizens make no attempt to whip the abusers into line. a person could be the biggest ass in public and no-one would say a word, and i’ve even heard stories about people getting upset at the person who did try to sort it out – “hey shut up!” “me? i’m trying to stop this guy from bothering other people!” “yes he shouldn’t do that, but it wasn’t a big problem until you came and started turning it into something.”

    • Clickonthewhatnow

      Is your point of view based on the heart of Tokyo? I’ve very rarely seen any of the things you speak of. Perhaps it’s one of the benefits of living “in the inaka”?

    • J.P. Bunny

      Personally, I would side with the old guy. The Silver Seats are clearly marked, the youngster was rude and inconsiderate. Don’t know how many times I’ve gotten ready to take a seat on the train when somebody quickly takes the spot. An able-bodied person rushing across the carriage to beat some elderly person to the seat deserves all the public berating that can be directed at him.

  • http://www.an-chan.net/ Antoine B.

    Well, that elder man on the train was pretty arrogant… he could have gently asked the man if he could get the seat, instead of insulting him right in the face…
    Elder or not, arrogance and aggressiveness are never helping to live in society. The first mistake the elders are doing is to think that having worked their whole life gives them any privilege other than to be on vacation with a pension.
    As for the life in Tokyo, in general people are completely ignoring each other, but I think it’s one of the only solutions to make so many people live in such a small area without starting a civil war, no?

  • Ben

    the younger man has a fair point, thinking about it. in the older man’s generation, people had a much better working life. they go on about all the overtime they all did back in the day, but today’s working japanese do that too, and their spouse also has to work, and with far reduced benefits. go out at lunchtime on any weekday and the cafes are full of women in their 50’s and 60’s, working age but the husband’s salary is more than enough. now double-income households are necessary, as is the 35-year loan. you want his seat? how about you give him a fair share of the deal?

  • Paul Martin

    Japan today is NOT the Japan the World is led to believe it is. I have lived there on and off since 2008.The older Japanese do most of the voting and are completely seperated from the young in every sense of he word.
    Young Japanese today are greatly influenced by American and European cultures, music and lifestyles, they are for the most part not interested in Japanese culture which the older Japanese and politicians try to shove down their throats !
    Japan is changing rapidly and when the last remnants of the past are fast disappearing and Japan soon inevitably must change and become international or a=watch China absorb the economic and relationship dependency of the World !

  • Paul Martin

    Japan today is NOT the Japan the World is led to believe it is. I have lived there on and off since 2008.The older Japanese do most of the voting and are completely seperated from the young in every sense of he word.
    Young Japanese today are greatly influenced by American and European cultures, music and lifestyles, they are for the most part not interested in Japanese culture which the older Japanese and politicians try to shove down their throats !
    Japan is changing rapidly and when the last remnants of the past are fast disappearing and Japan soon inevitably must change and become international or a=watch China absorb the economic and relationship dependency of the World !

  • soondugan

    There’s no excuse for sitting in a handicap seat (unless the train/bus is basically empty) if you’re able-bodied no matter how tired you are and there’s no excuse for not being aware of your surroundings and giving up your seat even if it’s not designated for handicap passengers only. It boils my blood seeing people ignoring the pregnant woman on the train struggling to stand and hold an infant or the elderly woman clutching to a subway poll. It’s not about respecting your elders, it’s about basic human decency.