What a sad country this is. Granted, Spa! magazine paints in primary colors. Maybe it’s missing a nuance or two? Maybe things aren’t really so bad? Maybe. Hopefully.
On the other hand, some of the statistics presented are hard to argue with — Japan’s poverty rate of 16.1 percent, for example, as calculated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That’s worse by far than Greece’s (12.7 percent), though slightly better than the United States’ (17 percent), “poverty” being defined as household income less than half the national average. In Japan, by that reckoning, you’re poor if your annual household income is below ¥1.22 million. Sixteen percent of a population of 127 million is roughly 20.3 million. That’s a lot of poor people for the world’s third-largest economy two years into a supposed surge called “Abenomics.”
Poverty is more concentrated in some population sectors than in others. Among single-parent households (overwhelmingly single-mother households) the poverty rate is 54.6 percent — highest in the developed world. Among the elderly it’s 20 percent — second-highest, after the U.S.
Grim present, bleak future, Spa! fears. Aging while poor and alone is a reality that can only burgeon, given the vast number of unmarried part-time workers currently in their 30s and 40s. Where are they headed, 20 and 30 years down the road? Haruo Hayashizaki, the 71-year-old pensioner who died after setting himself on fire in June on a crowded shinkansen, is an unforgettable symbol. The monthly Takarajima, in an article that basically shares Spa!’s concerns, quotes a 74-year-old man whose marginal, solitary life is similar to Hayashizaki’s: “He had no right to involve other people” — collateral damage included one fellow passenger dead and 26 injured — “but I understand how he felt.”
It’s not only poverty, and Takarajima, focusing on rising crime among the elderly, sees forces other than poverty driving it — loneliness especially, the helpless feeling of society having moved on and forgotten them. If that’s the way society feels, to hell with society. Solitude breeds bitter thoughts, one apparent outlet for which is crime, which helps explain the fact that not all elderly shoplifters are poor; nor, of course, are all elderly stalkers, or all elderly perpetrators of the violence increasingly apt to break out, Takarajima notes, in senior citizens’ facilities.
“The worst thing about growing old,” a 75-year-old man tells the magazine, “is emotional isolation,” so much the worse if exacerbated by money worries. His own isolation was getting to him to the point that he wonders what he might have been driven to had an old friend not unexpectedly contacted him to invite him to share an apartment.
It’s not only poverty — but poverty, present or looming, actual or feared, does cast a surprisingly wide, dark shadow on this outwardly prosperous and thriving society. You’d think “Hidetoshi Nimura” (Spa! uses no real names here) would be soaring comfortably clear of it, with a household income of ¥7 million. But — one thing and another. Home loan repayment: ¥130,000 a month until he’s 72 (he’s 45 now). Life insurance: ¥60,000 a month. Utilities: ¥30,000 a month. Cell phone bills for the family of four: another ¥30,000 a month.
Still manageable so far, but lately his wife decided that the two children, one soon to start senior high school, the other soon to start junior high, must attend private schools if their educational growth is not to be stunted. Here was a bolt out of the blue. He could dig in his heels, point out that his career has probably peaked — he hasn’t had a raise in 10 years — and insist that public schools will do fine if the kids have any aptitude (and if they don’t, private schools probably won’t help), but no father wants to be seen as economizing at his children’s expense, and so Nimura watches his savings dwindle year by year, “gnawed,” he says, “by anxiety every day.”
“Yasushi Nakamori,” at 36, might stand for all those of his generation whose lives were mangled in the economic collapse and hiring freeze that stunned an entire generation beginning in the early 1990s. Nakamori has never had a full-time job. He registered with a temp dispatch agency and gets sent here to do this job, there to do that — menial work for the most part, average income ¥50,000 a month. Marrying is out of the question; it’s all he can do to keep himself fed and housed.
“Tell me,” he challenges Spa!’s reporter, “have you ever done temp work? Being ordered around and treated like dirt by people younger than you — ‘Hey, you in the red shirt!’ It’s enough to make you weep!”
“Eriko Kimijima” is 40, a single mother raising two kids on a monthly income of ¥80,000. She ran her own nail salon once, but developed neck pains and gave it up. The children’s father pays ¥50,000 a month in child support. Welfare payments and a certain amount of help from her mother keep the family afloat. “When I think of the future,” she says vaguely, “I don’t know … maybe I’ll open a nice little coffee shop someday, or … or maybe get married? Soon my older child will start senior high school and be able to work part-time, which’ll help.”
Some kids raised that way grow up the stronger for it. Others, of course, don’t.
Just in case you think you’re above all this and none of it can happen to you, consider “Hiroyuki Baba.” He retired seven years ago at 62, looking forward to a peaceful, prosperous old age. His savings totaled ¥80 million. His home loan was paid off. His only daughter was married. It was just him and his wife.
Three years later his wife told him she wanted a divorce. “Fine,” he said. It hadn’t been much of a marriage. They split the property, he got the house, and life went on more or less as before — days spent looking forward to night, nights spent dining and drinking with old friends without regard to mounting costs and shrinking savings, until one day he woke up to find himself down to his last ¥10 million.
That’s still a fair cushion, but not an infinite one. What if he needs care in his looming old age? Care is expensive. He must cut back. But how? He’d never cooked before, didn’t know his way around his own kitchen. And drinking — he was no alcoholic, but earlier in business and then into retirement alcohol had been such a steady, loyal and amiable companion! Well, goodbye to all that.
The old life is gone, and at 69 he’s too old to start a new one. Or is he? Maybe he’ll wake up one morning and decide he isn’t. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.
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