BLESSED WITH OLD AGE: Demographic Change and the Family in Japan’s Aging Society, edited by John W. Traphagan and John Knight. New York: State University of New York Press, 2003, 248 pp., $71.50 (cloth), $23.95 (paper).

Aging is not what it used to be. Fuwaku, “no longer straying off course” once described the wisdom of old age, 40; and kanreki, one’s 60th birthday, was when a lifetime was completed and started all over again, at least for those lucky enough not to be abandoned on the obasuteyama, the “granny dump mountain” of the old folk legend.

As these notions show, the natural process of aging is subject to cultural formations, for, to some extent, human beings, as individuals and groups, are masters of their own destiny.

The Japanese have achieved unprecedented longevity, ranking first in the world in terms of both high life expectancy and low infant mortality. This is an impressive testimony to a successful society. But the longevity came with another, unplanned and unanticipated development: a rapidly and precariously falling fertility rate.

Together, high life expectancy, low infant mortality and a falling fertility rate, have turned Japan into the world’s oldest society where aging is now perceived as a mixed blessing, and as the most serious challenge the society has faced since World War II.

“Blessed With Old Age” addresses the impact of population aging on the family, which plays a central role in the way social ligatures are traditionally framed in Japanese society. Its 11 chapters vividly show that the changes forced by population aging are by no means confined to financial redistribution and a rearrangement of pension funds. At issue are structural and cultural changes affecting, directly or indirectly, almost every arena of society.

School rooms stay empty for want of children and are turned into day-care centers for the elderly. Residence patterns change, as urban congestion and increasing female participation in the labor market make three-generation households impractical. And while the caring for the elderly is gradually being transferred from the domestic to institutional domains, the notion of the “ideal” family is undergoing adaptive changes that make living arrangements for elderly citizens away from their families more socially acceptable.

The literature on aging in Japan is growing almost as fast as the number of centenarians. What makes “Blessed With Old Age” special is that it brings together experts of two fields that do not usually collaborate with each other, demographers and cultural anthropologists.

The demographers explain the structural makeup of Japan’s population in terms of age cohorts; the relationship among mass longevity, postponed marriage age and low fertility; and how these factors have worked together to produce a sense of demographic crisis. On the basis of recent demographic trends, they discuss projections of population decline and its consequences in various realms of society. They explore the demographic differences between urban and rural areas, showing how municipal governments in outlying prefectures are forced to develop and implement “population policies” in order to counterbalance the debilitating effects on local communities of out-migration by the young.

Rural bachelorhood and the “dying Japanese village,” in particular are serious problems that bring about profound changes in the social order. Concludes one of the authors: “There no longer is a ‘rural Japan’ in the conventional sociological sense of the term.”

If this is so, for which there is a lot of evidence, it follows that the demographic shift Japan has experienced during the last half century goes hand in hand with changes in customs and ways of life. These are the proper domain of cultural anthropologists. In their contributions to this book, they take a close look at how cultural practices are affected by demographic processes.

A prominent theme is the changing role of women, both in the family and in society at large. Traditionally, caring for the elderly has been a burden that fell almost exclusively on their shoulders, a burden many women are no longer willing to bear. There are three main reasons: The period of necessary care for the elderly has increased together with longevity; a second income is needed in many families; and the ambitions of many women extend beyond the family. Children, a job, and elderly in-laws are just too much to handle.

A severe intergenerational value gap is thus brought into focus by the demographic crisis. Today’s old generation grew up in a world where care for the elderly was unquestioningly a family duty, and most of them lived accordingly.

But this can no longer be taken for granted. One of the chapters of this book shows that even the graveyard testifies to the diminishing role of the traditional family. Being buried outside a family grave used to be the pitiable lot of the forgotten and the abandoned. Today, however, graves based on voluntary association rather than blood relations are gaining in popularity. The society of the dead mirrors that of the living.

The cultural aspects of Japan’s aging society are many and multifaceted. As this book makes clear, Japan’s exceptionally rapid demographic transition from a young to an aged society since the end of World War II not only allows for, but demands, explanations from various viewpoints.

On one hand, modernization theory recognizes in Japan’s demographic development a universal trend and the socioeconomic forces of globalization. On the other hand, ethnographic observations unearth peculiarly Japanese ways of coping with old age and accommodating changing intergenerational relations. Adherents of both approaches will find much food for thought in this timely and enlightening book.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.