"Grown-ups" in Japan

By Yo Tong on March 15, 2012
Bob Dylan asked, "how many miles must a man walk down before you can call him a man?" In Japan, the answer seems to be 60 years.

In a super-aging country like Japan, the definition of adulthood seems to be quite different from that in other countries.

Several years ago, there was an advertisement in Tokyo that I still dwell over, not because of the intrinsic nature of a superb product or service being offered, but because of the subtle yet absurd message delivered by the portrayed image and its catchphrase. In the advertisement, Japanese actress Yoshinaga Sayuri (age 66) stood amidst blossoming cherry trees (sakura), seemingly enjoying their beauty. The catchphrase read, “the things you want to do as an otona (大人, which translates to “adult”).

In the Daijisen dictionary, the entry Otona is defined as,

fully-fledged human beings who have prudence, good judgement and are socially responsible.

The same dictionary also explains that the deriving adjective, otonashii, signifies someone with a

calm and obedient nature and attitude; well behaved, quiet, gentle.

In the 21st century, Japan maintains its status as a super-aging society, with 23.1% of the population above age 60. Although the legal age for adulthood is 20, one of the highest in the world, it seems as though individuals are not recognized as true otona - that is, quiet and obedient - until their sixties, when they have become socially recognized as “fully-fledged” quiet and obedient adults.

According to statistics compiled by the Cabinet Office of the Japanese government, the aging population problem is set to deteriorate even more. It is estimated that in 2015, 26.9% of Japanese people will be over 65, and the ratio is expected to rise to over 40% by 2050. By then, the aged dependency ratio is estimated to be approximately 67%.

Death by radiation exposure categorized by age groups.
Death by radiation exposure categorized by age groups.

The submissive otona as an ideal person in society seems to suggest scorn towards those who have not yet reached this phase of adulthood. One example can be seen in the lack of consideration for children in the Fukushima nuclear disaster. After a series of explosions that crippled the reactors and an ensuing radioactive leak, the Japanese government did not order the distribution of potassium iodide, which can significantly prevent children's thyroid glands from absorbing radiation, nor did the authorities support a full-scale evacuation of children who lived just outside the evacuation zone, even though Japanese scientists and scholars are aware about the fact that children are the most easily affected by radiation.

Another example of policy that tilts toward the elderly is its forthcoming reform on the tax and social security system. The Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, proposed to raise consumption taxes to 10% in order to “reform” the government pension system to alleviate Japan's public debt crisis. The soaring debt stood at over 200% of its GDP in 2010 - second only to Zimbabwe's. The ever-increasing social security expenditure is one of the primary factors contributing to this deficit. According to the proposal by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the “reformed” pension system will see a minimum pension of 70,000 Yen (about $840 USD) per month for all people aged over 65, even though some of the beneficiaries never contributed to the pool, and an additional payment will be available on top of that according to the individual's contribution. In the current system, the maximum pension stands at about 79,000 Yen ($940) per month. While the ruling party is often generous to the elderly, parents with young children do not enjoy a similar treatment. When the DPJ came to power in 2010, they had fulfilled their pledge by passing a law to implement children subsidies (Kodomo Teate in Japanese) in order to raise the staggeringly low fertility rates. However, less than a year later, they scaled down the plan by slicing the subsidy in half, from 26,000 Yen a month ($311) for all children age 15 or below, to 13,000 Yen per month ($155). After the devastating earthquake in March last year, the Japanese government has backtracked its Kodomo Teate policy by essentially scrapping it, so as to secure funding for reconstruction. This move is supported by a large portion of the Japanese public. In recent polls conducted by major Japanese newspapers, over 60% of the interviewees supported the abolition of the Kodomo Teate.

Japan's super-ageing population
Forecast of Japan's super-ageing population trend from 1950 to 2055.

As the number of elderly increases, their voices become more influential when it comes to resource distribution. Yamada Masahiro, a sociologist and professor at Chuo University, pointed out that,

The number of Japanese voters who receive pensions is roughly 30% of the total, while the number of voters who have been given child allowance is about 20%, so they have already been outnumbered by the pensioners. Compared with the young couples who are nurturing children, the voice of the elderly tends to reach the authorities much more easily.

The strong voices from the elderly voters is one of the reasons behind the aging political center in Japan. In the House of Representatives of the National Diet, this trend is clearly visible. In the 2005 election, over 59.6% of the legislators were over 50 years-old. In the 2009 election, when the DPJ came to power, the ratio remained high at 57.5%. Although the average age of the legislators in 2009 marginally decreased and the ratio of legislators aged below 30 slightly increased, the influence of the younger generations was offset by the increase in the number of the over-60 age group legislators. This has contributed to the creation of an ossified political system that is unable to overhaul itself and make space for the young. It has stifled change and innovation, and is one of the reasons why the Japanese economy, previously the second most powerful after the U.S.'s, has cascaded into third place.

Oguro Kazumasa, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University, believes that if the majority of parliamentary seats have been occupied by legislators aged over 50, the laws and policies that ensue may be disadvantageous to the younger generations. The aforementioned differential treatment between the retirement pension and child subsidy is one concrete example of the professor's credence.

As the Japanese “lost decade” progressively turns into a “lost generation”, one of the key struggles that this frail and aging nation must face to once-again become rejuvenated lies largely in the dialogue that young and old must engage in. Japan's antiquated, regimented and hierarchical system that suppresses youth's initiatives is no longer useful for the country's development. Despite the generation gulf, Japan must realize that younger minds should have their say in politics, even though doing so will deprive them of the status of adults - quiet, obedient and submissive.