LONDON – Aging throws up many challenges, but the problems can often be compounded if you choose to spend your final years thousands of miles away from your home country.
This is the situation faced by a growing number of Japanese — often women who have married European men — who have decided to make Europe their permanent base.
Itsuko Toyama, a professor of intercultural studies at Momoyama Gakuin University in Osaka, has just conducted a large survey into aging among hundreds of Japanese expatriates in Britain.
She found many respondents aged over 50 expressed anxieties about growing old in Britain, particularly if their partner — frequently a native English speaker — dies and they are left to fend for themselves.
Interviewees expressed concern that if they become infirm they will find it harder to get Japanese food, the desire for which appears to grow with age, as well as meet other Japanese in social settings.
Many people are also worried that should they start to suffer from dementia, their English language skills will be the first to deteriorate, making it harder for them to communicate with British carers.
Participants were also concerned that if they have to go into a British care home, the staff may not fully respect their cultural background and practices.
Toyama’s findings have been mirrored in other studies she has undertaken with Japanese communities in Europe.
She told Kyodo News that returning to Japan is often a difficult decision for many pensioners living in Europe. They may have children here, be too frail to return or simply find the reintegration into Japanese society is too difficult, she said.
The academic’s survey of 454 Japanese, which was carried out in association with the Japan Association in the U.K., found there is a growing need for more facilities specifically catering to Japanese pensioners.
Her key finding is that Japanese culture — including food, language, arts and games, for example — is incorporated into the care of the elderly in Europe.
“The Japanese elderly have a strong desire for culturally sensitive care with Japanese elements for their later lives,” she said.
“Networks within ethnic communities need to be mobilized to manage the crises that arise in the lives of elderly people and maintain their well-being.”
Japanese expatriates both in Britain and other European countries have looked into the possibility of creating Japanese care homes but the costs have been too great, Toyama said.
Members of the Japan Association in the U.K. would like to create a drop-in day center for pensioners and create a hotline so people can get instant help, explained Momoko Williams, who set up the group 16 years ago when she realized the expatriate community was aging and needed to plan for the future.
But the Japanese community in Britain is proudly self-sufficient and is not asking for any special funding from the government to achieve its aims, said members interviewed by Kyodo News, all of whom intend to spend their retirement years in Britain.
They say that while they enjoy living in Britain, it is important to maintain links to Japan both through culture and food. This is because, as their short-term memory may deteriorate, their long-term memories of Japan remain strong.
“I sometimes open up my house for gatherings and when people go away they are smiling. Some people don’t get out as much as they want,” said association member Fumiko Ferguson.
“We want to create a day center where we can sing old songs, exercise, talk about the old days. It gives us an opportunity to be together. It’s very important as we retain old memories.”
The association decided to conduct the survey after witnessing several members struggle with the effects of dementia in Britain. Members said that it is often the case that a person’s acquired language, in this case English, is the first to decline, making communication with British carers particularly difficult.
There are currently around half a million Japanese retirees settling overseas. According to the Japan Association in the U.K., there are more than 60,000 Japanese living in Britain, including over 15,000 permanent residents.