The government’s latest estimate that the annual cost of social welfare benefits will reach ¥190 trillion — 1½ times the current level — in 2040 should prompt broad public discussions on measures needed to maintain the system’s long-term sustainability.

Options to address this problem in the face of the rapidly graying and shrinking population are limited: further increases in the public burden in terms of tax and social security premiums, reducing benefits, or preventing increases in medical and nursing care expenses. All of these will likely have to be combined to meet the daunting challenge. Given the enormity of the challenge and anticipated difficulties in reaching a public consensus on painful reforms — in which the hurt will likely need to be shared across a broad spectrum of the population — it’s high time to start the discussion.

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