Language | BILINGUAL

Will society still need me, will it still feed me, when I’m 100?

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

The Beatles song “When I’m 64” specified that age as one of retirement and grandchildren. Today, the mid-60s seems a tad too young for both those things. But consider this: Back in the 1960s when Paul McCartney wrote that song, the average life expectancy worldwide was 52 years old, according to World Bank data. Fifty-two!

Fast-forward to present-day Japan and 52 is まだまだ若い (mada-mada wakai, still quite young). Some people marry at that age, or leave their parents’ houses to try living on their own. Fifty-two is still fraught with romance, adventure, possibilities! At least that’s what the media will have us believe, as Japan has entered the era of 人生百年 (jinsei hyakunen, the 100-year life).

A century ago, any Japanese who lived till their 還暦 (kanreki, 60th birthday) was thrown a big party and presented with a 赤いちゃんちゃんこ (akai chanchanko, flaming red vest) as a celebratory token of longevity. And if that person lived another 10 years, they were thrown an ever bigger party for having reached their 古希 (koki, 70th birthday). Koki — short for 古来稀なり (korai marenari, a rare occurrence in ancient times) — is a phrase that’s no longer in circulation, though my older relatives like to recall it, laughing to each other that they’ve become rare specimens.

On the other hand, places like the city of Yamato in Kanagawa Prefecture have publicly refused to acknowledge septuagenarians as 高齢者(kōreisha, elderly people), promising to create more jobs and opportunities for older residents so they can continue to participate fully in society.

Just in case you didn’t know, the Japanese are among the most 長寿 (chōju, longest-living) people in the world. When you look at the World Health Organization’s 平均 寿命 (heikin jumyō, average life span) ranking, Japan almost always takes first place, and that age as of 2016 was 83.7 years old. But when you break that down into genders, Japanese men come in at sixth at 80.5 years, whereas women take first place at 86.8, beating Singapore and South Korea for the longest-living people on Earth. Which is all evidence of the fact that the women in this country are very 丈夫 (jōbu, hardy). Studies have also claimed that Japanese women live longer precisely because Japanese men die before their wives, thus liberating them from the burden of having to care for their menfolk.

This was certainly true of my grandmother, who outlived her husband by 20 years. While he was around, my grandfather was the typical Japanese 亭主関白 (teishu-kanpaku, domineering husband) who never set foot in the kitchen or bothered to operate a washing machine or, god forbid, fold his own socks. His wife did all that for him besides maintaining the household, raising his children and caring for his parents.

When he died, it was a load off my おばあ ちゃん (obāchan, grandma), and she proceeded to spend the next two decades living pretty much as she pleased — going to the theater, dining out and visiting various 温泉 (onsen, hot springs) with her posse of obāchan friends. She died at the age of 89 with her faculties intact, and one of the last things she did was crack open a novel by her favorite author.

Unfortunately, the kind of 老後 (rōgo, old age) that my obāchan enjoyed is now beyond the reach of many who are entering their twilight years. As the media keeps reminding us, the 100-year life is less about enjoyment than it is fending for yourself in an age of 年金 (nenkin, pension) cuts and 人手不足 (hitode-busoku, labor shortages) brought about by 少子高齢化 (shōshi-kōreika, the decreasing birth rate and aging population).

Money is an especially pressing issue. Every financial self-help guru out there exhorts the Japanese to start a 老後貯金 (rōgo chokin, savings account for old age) as early as their 20s, and to keep working well into their 70s. That sounds preposterous until you do the math: If you retire at 60 but go on living for another three decades, you’re going to need a sizable amount of cash just to keep body and soul together.

貯金 (chokin, savings) to the tune of at least ¥20 million will help cushion the blow, but apparently the willingness to keep working is even more important. Gone are the days when a 専業主婦 (sengyō shufu, stay-at-home wife) could count on her husband’s 退職金 (taishokukin, retirement package) and a steady flow of nenkin to see them through their golden years. The 終身雇用制度 (shūshin koyō seido, lifetime employment system) has collapsed, which means less cash on that retirement package. 晩婚 (bankon, getting married late) is the norm, which means birth and children are pushed back as well, which in turn means having to worry about college funds at a time in your life when work dwindles and salaries wind down.

It’s not all bad news, however. The Japanese are not great at this 長生き (nagaiki, longevity) thing for nothing, and traditions like 茶道 (sadō, tea ceremony), 華道 (kadō, flower arrangement) and 武道 (budō, martial arts) are the realm of older people — forums where they can hone their skills and be active participants for as long as they are able.

My obāchan‘s 座右の銘 (zayū no mei, phrase to live by) was 日日是好日(Nichinichi kore kōjitsu), which has its origins in Zen Buddhism and means that “every day is a good day” for facing life with vigor and freshness, and to plant the seeds of happiness.