As Japan's population ages, old isn't old anymore

A government report said that Japan remains the leader in life expectancy.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There is good news and bad news for Japanese babies born today.

New statistics suggest they can expect to live longer than anyone else in the verifiable history of mankind. But they are also increasingly likely to spend those extra years hard at work rather than in leisurely retirement.

For Japan's coming generations, octogenarians will be the norm. This approaching era of longevity is causing Japan to reevaluate what it means to be old, and redefine exactly when "old" happens.

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The average Japanese girl born last year will live 84.93 years, while boys will make it to 78.07 years of age. This is attributed to a low-fat diet, reliable healthcare, and high standards of living.

These figures, released by the Health Ministry earlier this month, extend the existing world records held by Japan. Hong Kong, where women will live an average of 83.9 years, is second.

But with Japan having one of the lowest birthrates in the world, politicians and demographers warn that elderly Japanese will have to work later in life to keep pension and healthcare systems from collapsing as the population shrinks and ages.

"We need a higher level of participation of ... elderly in the labor force," says Takeo Hiranuma, minister of trade and industry. "We have to turn aging into a locomotive for growth. We need to change mind-sets."

According to Guinness World Records, Japan is home to the world's oldest woman, Kamoto Hongo, who turns 115 this year; the oldest man, 113-year-old Yukichi Chuganji; and the community with the highest proportion of centenarians – 33 people per 100,000 in Okinawa.

But if current trends continue, this good news could become bad news. Currently, there are four people working for every one person retired. But in 25 years, the proportion will fall to 2 to 1 as the number of people over 75 triples.

The changes are already apparent. Last year, for the first time, the number of people over 70 overtook the number of those under 10. Government forecasts say the population will peak in 2006 at 127.74 million and then start shrinking. Surveys show that two-thirds of those over 65 would like to work as long as they are healthy – a higher proportion than in other developed nations.

One of the leaders of the campaign for longer working lives is Shigeaki Hinohara, the 90-year-old honorary president of St. Luke's Hospital in Tokyo. Mr. Shigeaki has formed a group to change the definition of elderly to over 75 instead of the current 65. "That definition was established 50 years ago when the average life span was 63. Now it is closer to 80 and time for a rethink," says Shigeaki.

At least one firm has turned the demographic shift to its advantage. The Heartfelt Pub chain is staffed almost entirely by seniors. The seven-franchise chain aims to establish 1,000 pubs, employing 80,000 retirees.

But most of the corporate sector is still reluctant to extend working lives. Although the Labor Ministry has asked businesses to voluntarily keep workers until the age of 65, only a tiny number have done so. Mandatory retirement age is 60.

Ministers privately admit that Japan will need more immigrants to make up for a decline in population. But there is considerable resistance to opening up the borders in a country where less than 1 percent is non-Japanese. A former economics minister estimates that Japan will need to accept 100,000 to 300,000 foreign workers for every decline of one million in the population.

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