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.