National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Generations square off in a battle for the ages

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

You’d think they owned the planet. They think they do — pushing into line at supermarkets, hogging seats on trains, generally behaving as though no one but themselves existed except to provide the services they need.

Once upon a time — not very long ago — that was how the old talked about the young. Now, it’s the young tweeting about the old. In both cases, the subtext is, “Have they no shame?” And the answer, in both cases, is, “Not at all; they have pride.”

Once upon a time — not very long ago — the elderly possessed a treasured quality the Japanese call hinkaku, variously translated as dignity, elegance, grace, refinement, decorum. The elderly were decorum personified. They cultivated it, nurtured it, served as a model of it for their grandchildren. Grandchildren are a lesser consideration now. If there are any, they’re likely to live far away. Increasingly, the elderly live alone — by themselves, for themselves. Their responsibilities in life fulfilled, what remains are entitlements — which, when not acknowledged, must be asserted. The resulting behavior, says the weekly Shukan Post, is plain for all to see, raising the question which headlines its article: “Where has elderly people’s hinkaku gone?”

“I was on the train home after a long day,” recalls a harassed middle-aged company man. “A large group of old people were sitting together. In between two of them was a vacant seat — with a bag on it. ‘Is this seat taken?’ I asked; ‘can I sit down?’ ‘My friend will be getting on later,’ said one of the women, as blase as you please. Subject closed. What could I do?” Stand and fume.

“There was a pregnant lady sitting on a priority seat,” says a university student in her teens. “An old woman got on the train. There were no empty seats. So she went up to the pregnant woman: ‘I see you’re near your time; you’d better stand, or you’ll have a difficult delivery.’ The pregnant woman demurred: ‘It’s hard for me to stand.’ ‘Well then,’ said the other, ‘you won’t have a healthy baby!'” It ended with the pregnant woman standing up, the old woman sitting down, and the student giving up her seat to the pregnant woman.

Generally the elderly are portrayed as victims — of infirmity, dementia, fraudsters, uncaring or busy children, bewilderment as social and technological change overwhelms their waning adaptive powers. To Shukan Post, however, they are triumphant conquerors and graceless winners. They have no respect for others’ rights or needs. They shout when others want quiet, demand to be served first when others are waiting, adjust hospital air conditioners to suit themselves in defiance of signs asking them not to. A caregiver in her 30s who works at a senior citizens home tells of a man who gropes her while she feeds him. “It’s unpleasant,” she sighs, “but I put up with it.”

Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but there’s this statistic: In 2013, 23.4 percent of physical attacks on railway personnel were perpetrated by people aged 60 or older.

Should the young respect the elderly, pity them, or gnash their teeth at them? Sometimes different generations can seem almost like different species, shaped by environments so different as to almost seem like different planets. Those who came of age amid the postwar ruins, with its grinding poverty and a self-sacrificing work ethic that seems in retrospect vaguely kamikaze-like, pride themselves on having rebuilt Japan; to which those too young to have known anything but the stagnant economy that shadows their almost miraculous technological empowerment might reply, “For whose benefit? Certainly not for ours!” To young adults today, many of them shut out of regular employment and feeling deprived of sufficient financial security to marry, the old are people who coasted through life on the foam of an economic bubble that burst before they could hitch a ride on it; now, say the young, the pension entitlements and medical needs of the old are squeezing the life out of them.

It would be interesting to hear what “Masao” (as we’ll call him) would reply to that. He’d laugh first of all, for he seems a good-humored old gentleman, despite his adversity — maybe because of it; it seems to amuse him more than it weighs him down. A reporter for Sunday Mainichi magazine found him hard at work at 6 a.m. one morning pushing a heavily-laden cart through a warehouse. He’s 80 years old and holds not one job but two, one of the growing ranks of elderly who must work to live because their pensions are inadequate.

“I’ve been doing this since I was young,” says Masao, laughing — “40, 50 years. Knees getting a bit tricky, hurt when I walk, but I shift my strength onto the cart and we get along okay. Pension — don’t get much ’cause I didn’t pay in much. There’s nursing care insurance to pay, and … then what? Medical insurance, rent, utilities, food … not much left over after that!” he laughs.

Sunday Mainichi’s writer visits a Tokyo employment center that reports 28 percent of its job seekers in 2013 were over 65, up from 24 percent in 2012 — and yet only 20 percent of senior applicants land jobs. The mismatch between what they want — mostly office jobs that bring their previous experience into play — and what employers who hire seniors want them for — security guards, cleaners — is simply too great.

A job for a senior citizen may be a pastime but is at least as likely to be an economic necessity. Pension payments are decreasing — how can they not be? The system was designed, as consultant Keisuke Nakahara tells Shukan Gendai magazine, at a time when people lived an average of 13 years after retirement, mostly with their families; now they might live 30 years and, increasingly, alone. What this can mean is reflected in a statistic cited by Sunday Mainichi: 45.2 percent of social welfare payments are claimed by pensioners at a loss to make ends meet.

There are rich elderly and poor elderly, but the bond that unites them — age — may be stronger than any class tensions, just as youth bound rich and poor youngsters together when the world was so incredibly young half a century or so ago. Japan, as everyone knows, is growing older and older. So is the world, but not at Japan’s pace. Of the world’s roughly 440,000 centenarians, 58,820, as of September, were Japanese.

But that’s nothing. The weekly magazine Flash quotes researchers who retard the aging process at the cellular level and look ahead to a life expectancy of 300 years. Will we ever grow to love life deeply enough to want to live that long?

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.