Shortly after I arrived in Tokyo on a visit this spring, I went to a bank to get some money. As I was filling out a withdrawal slip, I noticed a pair of reading glasses left behind on the counter. So I took them up to the window and said, “Somebody forgot their glasses.”
The teller was too polite to laugh in my face, but I saw the amusement in her eyes as she set me straight. “Oh, those glasses aren’t forgotten,” she explained. “We provide reading glasses on the counter because so many of our customers need to use them. We have three different strengths so we can fit everybody.”
Sure enough, at every bank, post office or hotel counter I passed, I saw boxes of reading glasses bearing friendly labels like “Feel free to use these.” And I noticed that many customers routinely did just that.
Readily available reading glasses are one of countless ways that Japan is adapting to the everyday needs of the world’s oldest population. With a higher percentage of older people than any other country — and among the world’s highest life expectancy rates — the nation is taking steps to accommodate the needs of senior citizens, or kōreisha (a word formed from three Chinese characters meaning “upper,” “age” and “person”).
Books, magazines, train schedules and telephone directories are routinely printed in both normal and large-print editions. At major crosswalks, next to the button that pedestrians push to get a walk signal, there’s a second button that can be pushed to get extra time to cross. Virtually every hotel, department store and train station prominently displays bright orange defibrillator machines with instructions for their use in emergencies. In buildings that have a bank of elevators, there is often one priority elevator for people with wheelchairs or walkers. Escalators, too, have been modified to take wheelchairs. As befits a Confucian culture, there’s a national holiday (Sept. 17) called Respect for the Aged Day.
All of which represents Japan’s response to the inescapable fact of a rapidly aging society. For the past several years, the nation of 127 million has recorded more deaths than births. The government this spring reported that some 27.7 percent of Japanese people are over age 65, the highest proportion ever recorded in that country.
As an American kōreisha, I began following with interest the measures Japan is taking to deal with this demographic imperative.
In one way I was disappointed. Since I regularly take advantage of senior discounts back home for movies, sporting events and such, I was surprised that I couldn’t find bargain prices for older people in Japan. A friend explained that, with so many people over 65, businesses couldn’t survive with discounts for older customers.
But other age adjustments radiated with common sense. Like many other countries, Japan requires that new drivers place a marker on their car to tell others that there’s a beginner behind the wheel. But Japan is the only place I’ve found that requires a similar symbol for older drivers. The multicolored patch is displayed on the front and back fenders of the car; it is recommended for drivers over 70 and mandatory for those over 75. Older drivers seem to take this requirement in stride. When I asked my 80-something friend Fumiaki Kuraishi (an excellent driver) about it, he replied, “The kōreisha mark makes sense because a lot of people my age have trouble hearing or seeing.”
Japanese newsstands are filled with collections of manga, or graphic novels. Stories about young lovers have always been a standard element of this popular genre. In recent years, though, the manga artist Kenshi Hirokane has had explosive success with a series called Tasogare Ryūseigun, or “Shooting Stars at Twilight.” It spins tales of older people finding romance. In one typical story, a 70-year-old widower, bored with retirement, takes a part-time job as a corporate chauffeur. He’s assigned to drive a senior vice president, a woman nearing 60 who has never found room for a man in her busy life. Over time, they develop a warm friendship. One night the VP tells her driver to pull into the driveway of a “love hotel” (a common venue in Japan for indulging in a secret tryst). A wild evening ensues, and the two become ardent lovers. Hirokane has published 56 volumes of these twilight tales so far, and millions of readers buy each new collection. (Including me—I love this series.)
While Japanese culture adjusts to its aging population, its government is struggling to do the same. This year, Japan implemented a cost-cutting formula for the “Nenkin,” its version of our Social Security system. For many seniors the change could lead to a reduction in benefits. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to this change as the “Nenkin System Reform Act.” His opponents labeled it the “Cut-Your-Pension Law.”
Traditionally, Japan’s prime minister sends a letter of congratulations, along with a sterling silver sake cup, to those who turn 100 years old. But in 2016, in a sign of the nation’s challenges affording an aging population, the government switched to a cheaper silver-plated cup. The savings is only $35 per cup, but that adds up in a nation where 30,000 people celebrate their 100th birthday each year. More seriously, the government has steeply hiked health insurance premiums for those over 75, sparking protests from the nearly 18 million people who have to pay the higher fee.
“It’s infuriating,” said my 84-year-old friend Yasuko Maruta. “It feels like I’m being punished because I stayed healthy all these years.” And yet, all over Japan active seniors like Yasuko are enjoying the benefits of long life.
After commuting to work for some 30 years — two jam-packed trains plus a long subway ride every morning and afternoon — she now greatly enjoys the free time to spend with her family, to cook fancy meals, to read and to take up hobbies. When she turned 80, Yasuko dyed her hair purple and started piano lessons. When I teased her about that — “Grandma playing chopsticks” — she had a ready answer. “I’m not the oldest person in the class,” she said. “Just about everybody there is a kōreishalike me.”
T.R. Reid is a best-selling author. His latest book, A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System, was published in 2017.
The 2018 edition of AARP International The Journal takes an in-depth look at aging in Japan. Find it at aarpinternational.org/journal.