As a gauge of where this country is heading and what kind of mood it’s in, consider this fact: Last week, almost every mainstream weekly news magazine ran at least one story on old age and/or death.

Shukan Asahi’s was titled, “I want to die (quickly) of a sudden illness.” Shukan Shincho offered “major research” on how to select a senior-citizens’ home. Shukan Post featured a package of articles on funerals, introducing newly popular alternatives to traditional observances and demanding whether, in these cost-conscious times, a funeral is even necessary. A Shukan Gendai headline read: “I want to die at home.” Most people do; it’s “a kind of instinct,” the magazine affirmed, and in the immediate postwar period, 90 percent did die at home. Today, the family having evolved into an entirely different sort of organism, only 10 percent do; 80 percent die in hospital.

Speaking of family evolution, the biweekly Sapio (Oct. 13-20) launched its 15-page spread on old age with a provocative question: “When did the Japanese family sink to this feral state?” The symbol of the moral morass it diagnoses is the discovery in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward last August of the mummified remains of a man who had been presumed alive at age 111. His 81-year-old daughter and 53-year-old granddaughter were arrested on suspicion of fraudulently receiving his pension payments — some ¥9 million worth. If Shukan Gendai is right, the man was fortunate in one sense: He died at home — in 1978, apparently.

It’s a deplorable state of affairs, surely, but is the problem moral, or social? Moral, unquestionably, says Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, whose thinking is often sharp but rarely complex. In an interview with Sapio, he attributed the greed and materialism he sees in today’s Japanese to “65 years of peace poison.”

There are, however, other and worse poisons at work in society, economic collapse prime among them. Few countries have risen so high so fast as Japan, only to fall so low so fast. Bewildering ascent, devastating descent. The toll it is taking is corrosive. The watershed year is 1992: In 1991 Japan was one kind of country; in 1993, quite another. Japan 2010 — let the Adachi case symbolize it if you like — is the child of Japan 1993.

It was in the early ’90s that a sociologist coined a term that was instantly seized and spread by the media — “parasite singles”: grown children living off their parents, largely because a corporate hiring freeze froze a large chunk of an entire generation out of steady full-time employment. It froze many of them out of marriage too. Raising a family costs money.

The “parasite” trend mushroomed. In 2003, according to a Cabinet Office survey, 1.91 million “children” aged 35-44 were living with their parents. Shocking at the time, it seems positively benign now. The 2009 figure is 2.8 million.

As parents age and retire, what becomes of the growing ranks of dependent adult children? They follow their own course of development, from parasite singles into what is lately being called “pension parasites.”

It has horrifying potential. Chuo University literature professor Masahiro Yamada, writing in Sapio, shows what it can lead to. The author of numerous books on the subject, Yamada describes households in which an aging parent comes to need nursing care but is not moved into a care facility by a dependent adult child afraid of losing his or her meal ticket. The parent’s condition deteriorates; the child, incompetent to deal with it, resorts to abuse, from neglect to outright violence, out of sheer frustration. The victim, Yamada says, is more likely than not to endure in silence. Why? “The attitude tends to be, ‘I raised this child, the fault is mine.’ “

He mentions one case known to him personally of an infirm father persistently beaten by his adult son. In conversation with Yamada, the father did not complain but instead expressed an anxiety: “When I die, who will the boy vent his stress on?”

To Ishihara this may smack of “peace poison,” and maybe an old-fashioned war would do us all good, but it’s rather a high price to pay for moral stiffening. There must be better ways, and we ought to explore them, because if the economy is recovering at all it is recovering painfully slowly, and the following question will remain relevant for some time: Can society remain decent in an underfunctioning economy?

Pension parasitism is one example — there are worse ones — of what people will inevitably resort to when they are helpless, through no fault of their own, to earn a living. Under such circumstances, Ishihara and others decry in vain the “greed” of a degenerate generation.

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.