The bright side of super-aged Japan



    Sep 29, 2015

    The bright side of super-aged Japan

    AT AN athletics tournament last week, 105-year-old Hidekichi Miyazaki broke into the record books with a 42.22s dash in the 100m and raced into the Guinness World Records as the fastest man in the world in the over-105 age category.

    Japan, which marked Respect for the Aged Day on Sept 21, has the highest number of people over 65 years old. The number of people over 80 has crossed 10 million with 60,000 of them being more than 100 years old, according to Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

    Japan should be proud of its people who live longer than their peers in the rest of the world. But their longevity also comes with problems.

    By 2025, Japan's Ministry of Labour, Health and Welfare projects the country's expenditure on healthcare rising by 70 per cent, nursing home care by 160 per cent and pensions by 40 per cent.

    These spending hikes are not the result of inflation, but a rapidly ageing society.

    From 1970 to 1995, Japan moved from being an "ageing" to an "aged" country, according to the definition used by the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations.

    In 2006, with more than 20 per cent of its population being more than 65 years old, Japan became the first super-aged country in the world.

    Japan's 2014 census showed that its population dropped for the sixth year in a row to reach a historic low. People over 65 now account for 25.9 per cent of the population - the first time this group has exceeded a quarter of the total since 1968.

    For about 50 years after World War II, the combination of Japan's fast-growing labour force and the rising productivity of its famously industrious workers created a growth miracle. Within two generations, the number of working-age people increased by 37 million and Japan emerged from the ruins of war to become the world's second-largest economy overtaken by China in 2010.

    In the next 40 years, the process is likely to go into reverse. Japan's working-age population will shrink so fast that by 2050, it will be less than what it was in 1950.

    On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his new plan to revive the country's economy. It includes support for parenting and childcare and improved social security to lighten the burden of child and elderly care for struggling families. He also set a target for increasing the birth rate to 18 children per 10 women from the current very low rate of 14.

    But Japanese policymakers need to realise that these moves are not going to immediately halt the population decline.

    John Beard, director of the Department of Ageing and Life Course at the World Health Organisation (WHO), has said that there is no need to become overly gloomy because of the demographic change. The WHO official sees ageing as an opportunity despite the pressure it exerts on social security systems.

    I agree, as I am amazed and moved to see people in their 70s and 80s in Japan looking healthy and holding high-pressure jobs. The secret to one's health and agility is working out regularly and having a purpose in life.

    Mr Miyazaki believes his best is yet to come. "I can't think about retiring," said the centenarian. He is serious, for he has already entered his name for the Japanese masters championships next month.

    Hats off to the old folks.