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Creating a future for Japan’s aging society

by Michael Hoffman

Japan is an elderly country. Twenty-three percent of its population is 65 or over. By 2050, nearly 40 percent will be. Nothing like these demographics has ever been seen before, here or anywhere. This is well-known and much discussed, usually in terms of the grim implications for an enfeebled economy and an already overwhelmed pension system.

But there is another dimension to it. Japan has grown psychologically old. Old age has reshaped the mental landscape. You see this mirrored in the weekly and monthly magazines. Twenty years ago, even 10, their coverage, broadly speaking, was of politics, economics and sex. Now it’s of politics, economics and death. Shukan Gendai last week tackled the latter issue almost in party mode. Its headline read, “Full of the spirit of death!” — followed by two provocative subheads: “Well, come on, god of death!” and, “We’ll teach you how not to be afraid of death.”

Positive thinking seems at first blush a little out of place here — or maybe not. In prehistoric Japan, Shukan Gendai heard from a Buddhist priest, death was neither dreadful nor dreaded; it was merely a return to “the big life,” the life we are ejected from at birth. Since the priest cited no authorities we are free to take his assertion on faith or leave it, but the 10 distinguished aging personalities whose views formed the core of the article are all for taking it. Since death is unknown, why fear it, demanded a 75-year-old doctor, a cancer specialist who’s seen death at closer quarters than most. He rather looks forward to his own. The anticipated reunion with lost loved ones is attractive, but more than that, he said, only dying will solve the mystery of death. Even science seems to recognize here a knowledge boundary it cannot cross this side of the grave.

Death is inevitable and implacable, and it is important to face it bravely, but articles of this sort unwittingly remind us how close Japan is drawing, emotionally and physically, to death — not, as in ancient warrior times, on the battlefield bathed in glory, but often in swarming anonymous cities, in solitude, neglect and despair.

The monthly Takarajima (which means “treasure island”) features a piece in its December issue titled “Japan: Suicide Archipelago.” For 13 straight years, suicide has claimed more than 30,000 Japanese lives annually, carnage worthy (as the magazine points out) of a civil war. This is not exclusively — but is increasingly — a senior-citizen problem: Last year, people over 60 accounted for 37.8 percent of all suicides.

Their circumstances are far from those of Shukan Gendai’s positive thinkers who say, as one puts it, “I don’t mind when I die.” It’s one thing to banish the natural fear of death, quite another to feel, as telephone lifeline counselors tell Takarajima many do, that “there’s nothing for me to do but die.” National Police Agency figures show failing health to be far and away the leading cause of suicide, with financial problems a distant second and domestic troubles an even more distant third, but underlying all that is depression, considered a factor in 60 percent of cases- a growing sense of isolation, a feeling that “nobody cares about me.”

This is expressed in numerous ways less dramatic than suicide — shoplifting, for example. Shukan Josei chronicles a near epidemic of senior-citizen shoplifting. Overall, the offense is down over the past two years, but it has soared 10-fold in the past 20 years among the elderly. During the first half of this year, 14,295 shoplifters aged 65 and up were apprehended nationwide — as against 8,769 aged 19 and under.

Police divide elderly shoplifters into two broad categories — those with no money and those with money. The former are to be pitied, and their motives speak for themselves. The latter pose more of a riddle. What draws them to a mischievous prank so plainly unworthy of the dignity of their years?

For some it’s an occupation, an activity, a challenge. In Gunma Prefecture there lives a “shoplifting expert” who’s 85 and prosperous, with a big house and spacious garden — hardly your typical delinquent, and yet her hobby, if that’s the word, has been the bane of local merchants for the past six years. When she gets caught, she “goes into her senile act,” Shukan Josei hears from a neighbor, “and she gets away with it.” Is it possible she’s not acting, even if she herself thinks she is?

Many elderly shoplifters, the weekly says, are glib spinners of ad-lib excuses. He wasn’t stealing, just stepping outside for a second to make sure his car wasn’t being stolen; she wasn’t stealing, just stepping outside to see if the friend she was due to meet had arrived. And so on. Since March 11 a new strain has crept in: “I’m an earthquake victim, there’s nothing to eat in the shelters, I’ll pay as soon as I get my compensation money …”

Of Gunma’s shoplifting expert, her neighbor muses, “I suppose she feels that since she has no future anyway, it doesn’t matter what she does.” Japan must start creating a future for its elderly, if it is to have a future itself.