The aging population of Japan

We cannot do without introducing briefly, the demography of Japan when the topic of ageing population is involved. And the ageing population in Japan has become a serious social problem that needs certain changes to be implemented. Later in the essay, we would like to provide certain insights to the living arrangements of the elderly and therefore their social activities in elderly clubs and such, social adaptation and societal reactions to the rapidly growing population of the aged in Japan. Lastly, we shall make a few cross-cultural comparisons between the elderly in Japan and the United States of America, so that we can highlight how Japan is unique from other countries.


Declining Fertility and Increasing Life Expectancy

Two of the more important reasons include declining fertility and increasing life expectancy of the Japanese. As mentioned by Sugimoto, the average number of children a woman bears dropped to 1.34 in 1999, the lowest record ever in Japan and the second lowest in the world after Italy (1.19). Japan’s fertility rate is lower than other modernized countries, Germany (1.41), Sweden (1.51), the UK (1.70) and the USA (2.03). It is calculated that the rate has to be at least 2.1 to maintain the current population level in Japan.

If low birthrate continues, the population in Japan drop only to half that at present in 100 years’ time. The declining birthrate is mainly due to women’s changing attitude to marriage and family life. More and more women realize that it is hard to afford to raise many children especially when the education cost is high. As women have higher social status these days, there are increasing job opportunities for women, making them prefer to marry later. The average age of first marriage was twenty-seven in 2001. While in 1950, the figure was twenty-three (Sugimoto, 1997).

And as for life expectancy, in 2000, the average life expectancy has increased to 85 for women and 78 for men, which is much longer than the life span of less than fifty years in prewar period. People in Japan stay alive longer because there are better medical services and they enjoy a higher standard of living compared to prewar time. The ageing of population has brought about crises both in the labor market and in the social welfare structure.
Labor Market and Social Security

For example, in the labor market, there is decreasing number of people in the workforce. People older than 65 take 17% of the total population in Japan in 2000 and it is expected to increase to 36% in 2050 according to Sugimoto. Therefore, continuous supply of young and active labor that the postwar expansion of Japan’s economy has depended on no longer exists. Lacking of young workforce will slow down the economic development in future. To compensate the fact of labor shortage, many firms raised the retirement age limit from fifth-five to sixty. Larger companies implement this practice more promptly than smaller companies. However, after retirement, most people choose to continue working until their mid sixties in subsidiary companies with reduced salary and shorter working hours.

The ageing population in Japan has also placed great pressure on the Japanese government as they may have to revise their pension schemes. Most of the time, the National Pension is not sufficient to support living after retirement, some join pension schemes in the company they are working in, so that there will be a larger amount of pension income after they quit work. As the elders increase in number, more government fund will be used in Welfare Pension rather than for the Financial Investments and Loans Program. To solve problem over labor market, caused by the ageing of population, Japanese government have two alternative sources of labor.

  1. Women can be employed as additional labor.
  2. Incentives can be given to attract foreign workers.

In conclusion, it is urgent and inevitable that Japan needs to abandon the predominantly male and Japanese-only labor system and to set up a more heterogeneous working population.

Informal Living Arrangements in Japan

The Family

The family as an institution is very important in an ageing population, housing will inevitably become a pressing problem when the proportion of elderly increases in a population. In the near future, we may see the traditional values in Japan interplaying with modern ideas of living alone or even, communal living.

The culture of the Japanese family setting is influenced by the teachings of Confucius. The Confucian ethic of filial piety, virtue of repaying one’s obligation & the Japanese educational curriculum sanction the blissful image of Japanese ageing. The family is viewed as the primary locus of a secure old age. Japanese society has placed great emphasis on filial co-residence as not only preferable, but as the normative pattern of family living arrangement. There is stigmatization of those who are unable to co-reside with their children.

The ideal Japanese family society is composed of families that are self-sufficient in bearing the responsibility of caring for the elderly by the younger generation rather than depending on the state to look after them. Thus, the ‚Äėideal‚Äô family consists of two to three generations living in one house. In the Japanese families, women are the caregivers at home. There is a tradition of assigning the total responsibility of care for the elderly to one family member who is the daughter-in-law known as the yome (Traphagan and Knight, 2003). This responsibility falls to a daughter in the event that there is no son in the family or he remains unmarried.

The determinants for co-residence in Japan include: marital status, education of aged parents, homeownership, income, number of children and housing costs. Elderly who are divorced or widowed, lowly educated, do not own or possess homeownership, have low income or have fewer children are more likely to co-reside with their adult children. Co-residence is also determined by the housing costs as well as it is expensive to live separately due to the high housing costs involved. Hence, co-residence would serve as a better option. However in the following section, we see that co-residence rates are decreasing due to several factors.

Declining co-residence

Over the years, Japan has become a classic example of a fall in trend of co-residence. It exhibits a decline in percentage of the elderly co-residing with their adult children from 1975 to 1995 across all age groups. At the same time, there is an increase in the number of institutions providing elderly care. The factors affecting the decline in co-residence rate include‚ÄĒeconomic, social and demographic factors.

  1. Economic factors include:
    • Structural changes in the economy

As the society undergoes the processes of modernization and urbanization, there is no need for children to remain at home to provide labor in agricultural activities which leads to changes to the family structure, resulting in a proliferation of nuclear families and hence a decline in co-residence.

  • Improved economic status of older adults

The increased coverage and benefit levels provided by public pensions have improved the economic well-being of older Japanese. Financial independence of aging parents eliminates one of the traditionally important motivations for co-residence.

  • Increased economic opportunities for women
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The increased economic independence for young women due to increased female labor force participation also affects co-residence rates. As the economic status and career prospects of young Japanese women improve, increased bargaining power vis-à-vis their husbands may allow them to insist on independent residence.

  1. Social factors include:
    • Changing attitudes toward co-residence

Some younger couples and aged parents prefer to live separately as they value their private spheres of independent living. ‚ÄúIntimacy at a distance‚ÄĚ refers to the practice of which adult children care for their elderly parents without having to co-reside with them.

  • Expanded provision and greater acceptance of non-familial care

As the availability of facilities of elder care increases, some families who are unable to cope with taking care of their frail and sick elderly parents may choose to send them to homes to receive institutional care and therefore, less tendency to co-reside.

  1. Demographic factors include:
    • Improvements in health and mortality

Elderly who are functioning well in their physical health may also reduce the need for care provided by their co-resident children.

  • Changing patterns and migration

The decline in fertility reduces ‚Äúkin availability‚ÄĚ of which aging parents have fewer children whom they can potentially co-reside. The phenomenon of adult children migrating to urban areas in search for better employment also leads to a decline in co-residence as they leave their older parents behind at home.
However, despite the decline in co-residence over the years, the majority of the elderly (about 50%) are co-residing with their adult children. Out of those who are co-residing with their children, a high percentage of them (about 70%) are staying in households with children who are married. On the other hand, the decline in intergenerational co-residence may have important implications for the provision of care to Japan’s growing elderly population

Societal response to declining co-residence

In response to the fall in trend of co-residence in Japan, there has been an attempt in bringing back the union of the generations under one roof in order to restore the essence of the family as the core of the society. Reliance and interdependence on one another can also relieve many of the burdens being placed upon the contemporary society.

Formal living arrangements in Japan‚ÄĒAotani rojin homu

We shall now look at Japanese institutions for the elderly, specifically on ‚Äúprotective care‚ÄĚ home (yogo rojin homu) (Bethel, 1992). Previously, we have mentioned about the concept of co-residence which is the Japanese ideal for life in old age. Institutionalization of the elderly highlights the conflict between the cultural norm of filial piety and the modern society reality, thus violates the traditional ideal of co-residence. These trends had also lead to an increase in institutions at about the same time. Though the reality of institutionalization is traumatic at any age or in any culture, cultural context shapes the experience of institutionalization and the design of the institutional environment.
Basically, there are four types of homes for the elderly in Japan:

  1. the nursing home (Tokubetsu yogo rojin homu- for the bedridden and mildly mentally impaired)
  2. the ‚Äúprotective care home‚ÄĚ (yogo rojin homu- for the low-income elderly)
  3. the ‚Äúlow-cost old age home‚ÄĚ (keihi rojin homu- for those with modest but sufficient means)
  4. the ‚Äúfull-cost retirement home‚ÄĚ (yuryo rojin homu- for those with substantial financial resources). The first three types are public institutions and are funded while the last one is private and requires substantial amount of money.

We shall focus on the second type- the ‚Äúprotective care home‚ÄĚ (yogo rojin homu) which takes in residents of low economic status. The institution chosen is the Aotani Institution for the Elderly (Aotani Rojin Homu). There are about 75 to 80 residents at any point of time, though there might be fluctuations occasionally. Residents‚Äô age range between 57 to 91 years and there are equal proportion of male and female. 3 to 4 residents are assigned to one room while couples have their own smaller, two-person room. Female staffs in this home are in closest contact with residents and take care of the daily operations of the home while the males are responsible for official and clerical responsibilities.

Inevitably, residents in Aotani find it psychologically hard to adjust to life in there as they have to reconcile their traditional belief in Confucian ethic of filial piety and the cultural ideal of co-residence with their own deviance from the norm. The popular image of institutions for the elderly in today’s society does no help in this adjustment process as they are images of desolation and abandonment. Institutions also symbol suffering and sacrifice. Why then do the elderly people want to move into institutions which do not serve to make them happy or content at all? Residents may be admitted to Aotani due to advancing age, economic hardship, family conflict, refusal to migrate with younger family members in search of employment, or even the desire for more freedom to live their own lives separately from their children. Residents in Aotani are sensitive to the social stigma associated with institutionalization and respond defensively, vigorously affirming the advantages and benefits of the institutional home life.

To help make life pleasant and fulfilling in Aotani, there is a need to transform the impersonal facility into a warm and friendly environment that distinguishes and nurtures individual worth and social intimacy. Concepts of community living, cultural understandings involved in the use of fictive kinship, recognition of age and seniority hierarchies, ethic of mutual aid, tendency to defy authority all play a role in shaping the social world of the Aotani social environment. The familial image is a tool used in daily life by Aotani staffs and residents to cultivate a sense of intimacy between them. For instance, the care-giver thinks of Aotani as a family (kazoku) and the staff women as mother figures.

Care givers must also take on the mother role (haha no yakume) and cultivate ‚Äėa mother‚Äôs heart‚Äô (haha no kokoro). In the process, they have to develop a maternal sensitivity to older people and be able to sense when residents are bothered by any matters through reading their face expressions and observing their mood changes. Residents themselves also try to create a sense of solidarity and belonging through the use of fictive kin terms. A resident‚Äôs use of kin terms also reveals the nature of friendship circles and relationships with acquaintances, thus helping to create a familial atmosphere.

People who enter at about the same time form a group identified by time period and feel a sense of camaraderie based on their common experience as newcomers. Chronological age and age grade identification are also used by residents to form ties within the Aotani society. An automatic bond is created among people of the same age. With similar characteristics, they begin to build their social support network of peers.

The desire for social recognition and approval takes priority soon after the newcomers merge into the social circle. Resourceful residents create their own social niche of distinction, thus enhancing residents’ sense of identification with each other and the institution. For instance, some residents can display their painting and photography skills and thereafter develop a reputation among their peers. Recognition and social approval also can be increased by adhering to commonly esteemed values, such as demonstrating one’s commitment and dedication to the common good.

In Aotani, most residents conscientiously commit themselves to the tasks they are allocated to such as cleaning the restrooms and preparing meals, with a sense of mission and responsibility. This too builds up social reputations especially if residents display their seriousness of intent and willingness to contribute when doing the tasks. Apart from work responsibilities, residents who offered cooperation and mutual assistance to those who are less physically mobile or strong and compassion and service to those weaker than oneself are being appreciated and respected.

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The adjustment to group living (shudan seikatsu) is difficult at first as not only must residents learn to live with strangers at very close quarters, their lives have to be tightly regulated for ease of supervision. Those who refuse to conform to rules and regulations may be asked to leave. However, networks of resistance and mutual aid are created to facilitate rule violations. Nevertheless, these networks form an integral part of the informal social structure of home life as an affirmation by residents of their effectiveness as human beings and their will to remain in control of their lives.

In today’s modern society, institutions for the elderly act as alternatives to the supports of the biological family and their residents are pioneers in exploring ways to humanize institutional settings. Although life in social welfare institutions for the elderly is not the cultural ideal of growing old within the security and warmth of the family circle and that residents there have to conform to rules and regulations at all times, there can still be development for community in which intimate social ties are formed among residents and staffs.

In addition, although Aotani residents may hold on to bad feelings of social stigma and preconceptions about institutions, this psychological block may be slowly cleared when the residents discovered a thriving community of peers with whom they can identify with. They will then start to participate more actively in the diverse and multi-layered interactions of Aotani. They will also start to embrace a new pattern of social relationships as an alternative to family ties.

Another form of institutionalized elderly care‚ÄĒthe Kotoen

The Kotoen is an age-integrated institution that houses a nursery, a nursing home and a day service centre within the same vicinity. This attempt at age-integration is to create a conducive social environment whereby the older residents and the younger children can interact on an intimate level. Moreover, it is statistically proven that children who are in contact with older persons tend to hold less negatively stereotypical view of the elderly. And elderly with good social support network are less vulnerable to depression.

In general, majority of the residents of Kotoen are either widowed, divorced, not married, have low levels of education, low levels of social support and low financial stability. As much as this ‚Äútotal institution‚ÄĚ (Goffman, 1961; Shield, 1988; Bethel, 1993) is not an ideal or desirable living arrangement for an elderly person, many of them would prefer to live with this stable albeit regulated life for this social arrangement is the only one that will give them a ‚Äúpeace of mind‚ÄĚ as they move through their last phase of life. In short, institutionalized predictability is more attractive than a live of uncertainty.

The social environment that is promoted within the institution is one that revolves around the concept of Fureai and Daikazoku. According to Kenkyusha (1983), Fureai means ‚Äúcoming into contact‚ÄĚ, or ‚Äútouching each other‚ÄĚ. Fureai is promoted when the
elderly and the children interact when they engage in simple common activities like eating together.

On the other hand, the concept of Daikazoku is more complex. It is an ideological framework that seeks to promote a romanticized framework of intergenerational harmony and interaction that was prevalent in traditional Japan. This harmony is manifested through the sharing of common spaces and engaging in shared activities like feeding and changing sessions where the residents will help the children, Origami sessions and clay-playing sessions. All these activities allow the residents and the children to take on the social role of ‚Äúgrandparent‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúgrandchild‚ÄĚ respectively.

With the breakdown of the three generational stem family as Japan modernizes, many individuals are devoid of the opportunity for this kind of intimate extended family interaction. Therefore, Kotoen, through the scheduling of compulsory communal daily activities strives to create and environment conducive to foster and propagate family-like intergenerational interaction for this cohort of individuals.

Nevertheless, as in all total institutions and like the Aotani institution, rules and decorum have to be instituted and observed. As a result of this, the Fureai that exist between the residents and the children is very much temporarily, situationally and contextually contingent. As aptly described by the author, the interaction of the residents and children is characterized by ‚Äúevent grandparenthood‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúcollective grand-parenting‚ÄĚ. An excellent example of this restrain is manifested when Mid-summers greeting cards that are created by the elderly for the children are not addressed to individual names. Instead, the cards are addressed to their ‚Äúgrandchild‚ÄĚ. Moreover, other than the scheduled timings, we do not see spontaneous interaction between the elders and the children.

As much as can dismiss the effectiveness of Kotoen as an age- integrated social institution, it is important for us to recognize the positive psychological and emotional support that this social arrangement has provided. The residents, as wardens of culture and embodiment of all the good old traditional values are important socializing agents to the children in the nursery. Reciprocally, the children also educate the residents about the dynamic and changing world outside Kotoen.

The old people’s club and community activities upon retirement

After retirement, some Japanese join local activities which the responsibilities are distributed among the informal age structure consisting of the chokai, the women’s auxiliary and the old people’s club (rojinkai). Women of the community will make and distribute gifts to the neighborhood’s senior citizens on Keiroo no Hi (Respect for the Elderly Day). The tasks of the old people’s club mirror the conventional expectations of the elderly. Since its members have by definition mostly retired from active participation in neighborhood affairs, no one expects them to be responsible for any public activities or functions outside those of the rojinkai. Nevertheless, the neighborhood implicitly leaves certain ritual matters to them in a tacit acknowledgment that older people tend to be more concerned with religious matters than their juniors.

Younger adult men therefore run the neighborhood’s annual matsuri (one of the largest festivals in Japan which starts July first and throughout the entire month there are street fairs with games and Japanese festival food)1, whereas men from the old people’s club take charge of the semiannual festivals for the tiny Inari shrine. The Inari festivals in February and July are much smaller and more closely linked to the shrine than the much more boisterous, more secular, neighborhood-centered festival for the local tutelary deity held each September. Organizationally at least the old people’s club does not distinguish along gender lines in assigning official positions and duties, and both men and women participate more or less equally in activities with little apparent regard for the differentiation of domains that characterizes the division of labor among younger generations.

Social Adaptation and society’s reactions to Japan’s aging population

An increasing proportion of elderly in the society definitely means there exists now, a new market for products targeted at the older population. This is sometimes referred to as a silver market. One of the more interesting products we found out that is available in the market is the Snuggling Ifbot. Apparently the Snuggling Ifbot is quite a recent invention, which was launched only in December 20042. It is the success of the cooperation between 3 companies, Business Design Laboratory, Futaba Industrial Co., and Brother Industries.

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This Japanese robot is designed to chat lonely elderly out of senility and has the conversation ability of a 5 year old. While chatting with Snuggling Ifbot, the elderly can then stimulate their brains and avoid being forgetful as according to its manufacturer. Currently the robot speaks Japanese but its manufacturers plan to program it in English as well. It is capable now, to express emotions using 108 LED lights built into its head4. It is about 45 centimeters tall and has other very clever functions such as puzzles, memory games, calculator, advice and reminders for medical checks. However, all these come with a price. It is selling at about 600,000 yen which makes it quite an expensive toy!

Mobile phone for the elderly

This phone is another product targeting the elderly. It is for their convenience, has large buttons and a long battery lifetime. It functions very much like house phone and has no intimidating, thick manual.

Adaptations in the built environment

The Ministry of Construction in Japan did a survey with some Japanese pedestrians and it turned out that they were conscious that something has to be done to the built environment so as movement will be more convenient for the elderly. It shows that 25% of the pedestrians feel that improvements have to be made where provision of sidewalks, and modification of steps and gradients are concerned. Some other suggestions include, to widen sidewalks, to provide resting places and the erection of more signboards6.

Cross-cultural Comparison

How Japanese elderly compares with American elderly

Despite the decline in co-residence over the years, the majority of the elderly in Japan are co-residing with their adult children. This is a much higher figure as compared to the Americans who tend to live alone. The Japanese elderly and American also have different attitudes towards other things as shown below.
Social designation aspect

The Japanese had resigned themselves to the fact that they will have to move to and die in some place, which they have planned. Japanese sons are also expected to take care of their mothers when they are old. Moreover, living with a child is what is expected of an elderly from the Japanese society. Whereas American elderly had not ruled out the eventuality of living in a nursing home, but they try to lead a very active life, for example, as elderly advocates, serving on boards and committees and many community organizers.

Entitlement, obligation and equity of Japan and America

Both Japan and America took a series of legislative measures such as the Law for the Welfare of the Aged and the older American Act to enhance the well being of their older citizens. Even though both Japan and America are trying to protect the well being of their elderly, they base their measures on their own thinking style.

The Japanese made sure that the elderly would be taken care of when they grow old and weak by their children. The Japanese’s subject is responsibility, meaning that the elderly in Japan have to responsible for their own actions within the society. Senior citizens must also vary their behavior to suit the changes that comes with aging. In America, the society is more towards the prerogative to independent life. This means that the elderly in America have the rights to do whatever they want. (The older American Act frames the rights of older people in the ideology of equal opportunity and freedom common in American Society.)

Protection and Intervention in the private household

What goes on in the households of the two countries? The majority of the senior citizens in Japan lived with their children in a 3-generation household. Their living arrangements generally remained unchanged across their lifespan. On the American side, more of the elderly lived alone as it was more of normality to them, compared to the Japanese. Their living arrangements will change according to their age. As for social networks outside of the household usually consisting of non-resident children, friends, neighbors, relatives and acquaintances, relative to the Americans, the Japanese elderly hold poor relationships with their age group. Also, the elderly are very competitive amongst their age group, resulting in a deterioration of their relationships. Their most common confidante was a child while their least choice was a spouse. On the other hand, the elderly in America has networks which include almost 3 times as many close friends and 1.5 times as many close relatives as the Japanese. Thus, their most common confidante was a friend and their least common choice was a child.


Old age in Japan is very different from other countries, in that the proportion of elderly above 65 years of age increases more rapidly such that it has become a serious problem. It is a pressing problem that society has to try and solve as the old age dependency ratio starts to increase. In our essay, we have given insights to the living arrangements in Japan and also other formal institutions who take in the elderly as residents. These formal institutions are alternatives to co-residence with their adult children.

We hope to have also illustrated that Japanese are still much bounded to their traditions and cultural norms of co-residence, and that formal institutions such as the Aotani and Kotoen are still not popular in the hearts of many. The Japanese aspire to grow old within their children’s household and not in formal residences for the elderly; they do not want to be stigmatized. However, we should bear in mind that the formal living arrangements create an environment of healthy living, and the elderly are engaged actively in communal activities and are not left out on their own.

They will still be able to acquire social roles even after retirement and feel more involved. The government may want to look into the establishment and promotion of such facilities to accommodate the increasing number of older dependents and to de-establish cultural norms which may impede the healthy development of society.

Lastly, we saw how the general Japanese population responds to the phenomenon of aging population in their awareness of the needs of the older population and their push for certain changes to be made. We hope that the comparison of Japan with America shows the unique element of the aged population in Japan and how different countries should treat their aged population differently.


Bestor, Theodore. 1989. Neighborhood Tokyo. Calif: Stanford University Press.

Bethel, Diana. 1992. Life on Obasuteyama‚ÄĒInside a Japanese Institution For the Elderly in Lebra. Takie (ed). Japanese Social Organization, University of Hawaii Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1961. Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Imprint New York : Doubleday

Hashimoto, Akiyama. 1996. The Gift of Generations: Japanese and American Perspectives on Aging and the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sugimoto Yoshio. 1997. An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge University Press.

Thang Leng Leng. 2001. Generations in Touch: Linking the Old and Young in a Tokyo Neighborhood. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Traphagan J.W. and Knight J. 2003. Demographic Change and the Family in Japan’s Aging Society. Albany : State University of New York Press

Kenkyusha’s new Japanese-English dictionary. 1983. Edition 4th ed.

AkibaLive (2004, Nov 29). The Yori-soi ifbot <>

Arjen van Blokland (2004, Oct 31). Mobile Phone for the Elderly
<> News (2004, Dec 02). Japanese robot to chat lonely elderly out of senility

Grundner, A. (2004, Dec 04). Snuggling Ifbot – The Elderly Companion Bot

Road Bureau, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (1999).
Measures for Population Aging <>

(1998). Gion Matsuri

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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