Japan: Land of the Rising Retirees

Societal attitudes and business strategies begin to adjust to a more active senior population

RETIREMENT in Japan, the world's fastest aging industrialized nation, has been seen as a time when people stay indoors, trim bonsai, or watch baseball on television. But, nowadays, many older people continue to work, spend money, and play golf. The tendency to emphasize how to take care of the old ``has been changing into how to have a healthy and active life for the 20 years or more after retirement,'' says Masaaki Shiraishi, executive director of the Japan Well-Aging Association (JWA), a private group of older citizens who seek a better life in the days of longevity.

According to health and welfare ministry figures announced in August, the Japanese have the world's longest average life spans - 75.91 years for men and 81.77 for women. The number of people aged 65 and over is expected to increase from 14.82 million in 1990 to 31.88 million in 2020 - from one out of eight today to about one out of four.

During the 1980s, almost all that government and business circles could talk about was how to take care of senior citizens and what to do about senility, says JWA president Sumio Yoshida.

``Everything in life has a plus and a minus aspect,'' says the 79-year-old Yoshida. ``But if only the minus is stressed, then people will feel gloomy.''

Japanese companies and marketing researchers are slowly understanding this sentiment and what must be done to cultivate older customers.

The government has promoted more vigorous lifestyles since the health and welfare ministry started to be concerned about expanding costs of government medical care, which rose 8.6 percent during the past fiscal year, eating up about 1.8 percent of the gross national product.

When Japan first became aware of its demographic change, many companies reacted simplistically by providing home-care helpers, wheelchair rentals, and reclining beds, often with sale tags that read ``for old people.''

So dramatic - and some say traumatic - is the shift to an older society that more than 150 private companies got together in 1987 and, in an opportunistic move, created the Elderly Service Providers' Association. This ``new'' market for seniors is expected to reach $700 billion in the year 2000, according to a 1988 calculation by Asahi Life Insurance Company.

Despite such forecasts, few businesses actually have begun to participate in such a market, according to Isao Okamoto, director of management strategy at the Mitsubishi Research Institute. ``I have not found one successful example of a `silver service' business,'' he says.

One reason is crude marketing, such as displaying products for seniors in one corner of a department store. Older Japanese don't want to be labeled as ``old people,'' Mr. Okamoto says.

But companies are learning not to advertise products as specially made for the aged, conceding that old people are more vigorous than they thought. By treating them simply as one group of Japanese consumers, businesses anticipate more sales.

``People in their 60s are different from what's been imagined,'' says Katsumi Kusuhara, a spokesman for Dentsu Inc., the world's biggest advertising company.

Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living Inc., the think tank for Japan's second-biggest advertising agency, has found a more positive attitude among people in their 60s toward consuming and enjoying life, compared with previous surveys in 1986 and 1988.

For example, those who saved money every month decreased from 54 percent in '88 to 45 percent, while those who had increased leisure time rose from 5 percent to 17 percent. Also, those who responded that they are knowledgeable about new products increased from 10 percent to 13 percent.

One example of how companies sometimes overlook the senior market has occurred with the auto-focus camera, targeted to young people, but a hit among older Japanese.

At first targeted to young people, such cameras turned out to be a hit among older Japanese who had more problems in focusing, says Morihisa Hattori, executive director of the Hakuhodo Institute.

Rather than letting business define their later life, some older people have taken matters into their own hands and started such groups as the Japan Well-Aging Association. The group is trying to come up with new ideas for self-initiated activities, such as how to be volunteers for a good cause.

``Everyone is eager to do something about their leisure activities, but not many want to do something for the society,'' argues the JWA's Mr. Shiraishi, who cites the popularity of volunteering in the United States. ``We should learn from the US about a system where the elderly can contribute to the society.''

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