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New light in winter

Christians see opportunity for outreach among Japan’s oldest citizens

New light in winter

Elderly people sit and chat in western Japan. They fear no one will be left in their town in several years because of depopulation. (Kyodo via AP)

STRAY SNOWFLAKES SWIRL IN THE AIR as a cold wind stings cheeks. It’s wintertime in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, and the capital city of Sapporo is steeped in shades of gray. The temperature is 10 degrees outside, but it’s warm inside the small Doronko Adult Daycare Center, as light streams through a large bay window.

Ten men and women between the ages of 70 and 90 settle into the cozy living room, sip hot green tea, chat about current affairs and distant memories, and laugh at bawdy jokes. A TV in the corner displays a rolling screen of karaoke songs.

Yamada Suzuko, owner of Doronko, started the center five years ago to keep elderly people active through reading, singing, and conversation. While the center is not affiliated with any religion, today’s guests are Dale and Karen Viljoen, longtime missionaries in Japan who converse with the members in fluent Japanese.

Angela Lu

Yamada Suzuko (Angela Lu)

For the Viljoens, these visits are front-line ministry. In Japan, so many elderly citizens live alone and rarely see other people that the Japanese have coined the term kodokushi—“lonely death”—for elderly people who die alone in their apartments. Sometimes outsiders discover the bodies weeks later.

It’s difficult to calculate the exact number of kodokushi cases, but NISSEI Basic Research Institute reported that in 2011 about 2,000 elderly people in Tokyo died lonely deaths. Businesses have begun specializing in cleaning the homes of the dead.

Lonely deaths likely will increase as the average age in Japan soars due to low birthrates and longer life spans. The country’s population peaked in 2007 at 128 million and since has dropped by a million. Tokyo’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research predicts that in 2050 the population will be only 108 million, with 2 out of 5 Japanese older than 65.

That makes Japan’s elderly citizens the fastest-growing demographic in the nation.

Meanwhile, at least one smaller demographic seeks to help them. Some Christians—only 1.5 percent of the population in Japan—see an opportunity to care for Japanese approaching the end of their lives.

In a country with a deep concern for the afterlife, these Christians help answer questions facing those near the end: Why am I here? What happens next? They also offer a simple ministry: They try to make sure some deaths won’t be lonely.

Angela Lu

Residents at Doronko Adult Daycare Center (Angela Lu)

WHAT CREATED JAPAN’S demographic crisis of dropping birthrates and a surging elderly population?

The good news: Japanese often live long lives due to healthy diets and habits. (Currently, three of the world’s eight oldest people live in Japan.)

The bad news: Population growth halted in 1950 after the government enacted the Eugenic Protection Act, requiring people with genetic and mental disorders to undergo compulsory sterilization. It also gave women unlimited access to legal abortion. The bill—inspired by American and Nazi eugenics programs—had an immediate effect: In 1957, nearly 40 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion. Officials didn’t abolish compulsory sterilization until 1996. Abortions remain easily accessible.

Today, many younger Japanese don’t aspire to marriage, and some say they are too busy working to look for a mate. A survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office found 37 percent of singles in their 20s and 30s uninterested in relationships because they found them “bothersome.” Online pornography and virtual worlds are partly to blame: Japan has half a million hikikomori—young men between the ages of 15 and 39 who stay inside their rooms, sometimes for years, without any human contact outside of their parents—according to a 2016 Japanese Cabinet survey.

With fewer marriages, fewer children are born, since having children out of wedlock is rare. Many couples who marry say they can’t afford to raise children, as the cost of living in cities rises and wages stagnate. The cutthroat work environment in Japan makes it difficult for mothers to re-enter the workforce, which discourages women from having children.

To fight depopulation the Japanese government offers monetary incentives for having children: In one part of Tokyo, parents receive about $1,680 per birth. The government also provides free tuition and wants to expand affordable child care for working mothers, but its campaigns generally have a negligible effect on the low birthrates.

Some living longer lives have less to do. Japan has an unspoken mandatory retirement age of 60. Many employers don’t keep their older workers since they are more expensive than new hires, less able to keep up with technological changes, and in some jobs—like driving taxis—could become a liability.

With potentially fewer workers in the workplace, immigrants are a possible source of new labor. But Japan enforces an anti-immigration policy to maintain a homogenous society. The country allows some migrant workers from China or Southeast Asia to work in Japan temporarily, but the policy doesn’t allow migrant workers to bring their families.

Sasaki Toshimi, a 78-year-old member of the Doronko Adult Daycare Center, fears what will happen to the younger generation when they reach old age. “At the moment, we have a good healthcare system,” Sasaki said, “but when will it collapse? There are not enough children, and if the children aren’t born, then the system will collapse.” (Japanese healthcare allows citizens to pay only a 10th of their medical costs. Those with lower income receive healthcare without paying.)

IN TRADITIONAL JAPANESE SOCIETY, children take care of their parents into old age, but more young people now are working in cities and leaving their parents to live alone. A few send parents to a home for the elderly, a practice unheard of a generation ago.

Dr. Nomura Takuyuki runs a 19-bed hospital in Sapporo and says many of his elderly patients don’t have any friends. They come in just to talk to someone. People with mental illness face a stigma in Japan, so Nomura can’t convince his patients to see counselors, but they are willing to speak with him about their problems. The doctor typically sees about 100 patients a day, so he has little time to spend with each one, but if they want to talk, he invites them to come in during the evenings after his office is closed.

“The people who live alone really are lonely, and they become both emotionally and physically weak,” Nomura said. Many are full of the fear of the unknown: “They wonder, ‘What will happen when I’m not able to move properly? How can I live?’”

Nomura, a Christian, uses his position to minister to his patients, staff, and pharmaceutical representatives both in everyday interactions and during a Christmas outreach in December. He distributes Bibles at his office, invites people to local church events, and answers questions his patients may have about Christianity.

For 20 years, Nomura has held in his hospital a turkey dinner with Christmas carols and a Christmas-related “paper play”—a traditional form of storytelling that includes illustrated boards inside a miniature stage. Nomura also gives a short message, sharing the good news of the incarnation. He says he’s seen a handful of the attendees profess faith or start attending church. 

The doctor says Christians have “a unique opportunity to meet the needs of the elderly in Japan.” They can help “deal with their anxiety and fears and allow them a good way of living in spite of their illnesses. There are many people here without hope.”

That mindset led Dale Viljoen, a South Africa native, to seek out Japan’s elderly. He says they’re not only the fastest-growing demographic in Japan, but they’re sometimes more receptive to the gospel.


Dale and Karen Viljoen (Handout)

In his 38 years as an Overseas Missionary Fellowship missionary in Japan, Viljoen has found busy lifestyles a major obstacle to reaching students or the working-aged Japanese. From a young age, Japanese students spend long hours in the classroom, attend after-school tutoring sessions, and participate in extracurricular activities. Once they start a job with almost all waking hours devoted to work, there’s even less time to think about God. Outside of national holidays, workers rarely take days off.

“I firmly believe one reason Japanese aren’t believing in Christianity is because they are so busy,” Viljoen said. “They don’t have time to actually stop and consider, ‘Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life?’” One new young convert told Viljoen he didn’t feel comfortable speaking about Christianity with him in Japanese because of how foreign spirituality seems. He preferred to speak in English.

Yet Viljoen says elderly people have much more time on their hands. Many men don’t know what to do after they retire since most of their friendships revolved around the office, and they never had time to develop hobbies. Viljoen has found it is easier to talk about the afterlife when death looms. While challenges still remain—such as strong Japanese ties to traditional religion and ailments that can keep the elderly from fully understanding or remembering the gospel—Viljoen sees many opportunities.

A few years back, Viljoen considered starting a parachurch ministry to reach out to the elderly population. But while college ministries can find students clustered on campuses, older people are scattered in their own homes and tend to be more stationary. Viljoen realized this was a job for the local church: As church memberships grow older, Christians are in a good position to speak with their peers. Some churches have started to print bulletins in extra-large type, sing the same familiar songs, and make church buildings wheelchair accessible. Viljoen says pastors could also create simpler sermons to include “emotive illustrations elderly people can grasp on to.”

AT VILJOEN’S CHURCH, Sapporo Central Evangelical Christian, about 40 people—about a third of them over 65—fill the long, rectangular room on a Sunday morning. A box with reading glasses sits by the stack of bulletins. Soon the room swells with Japanese worship songs accompanied by an electronic piano organ. The church has conducted plenty of funerals in the past few years, and prayer requests during the service are mainly about sick family members.

Pastor Ozawa Kazuo said newcomers are most often in their 50s. He sees some older parishioners struggle between their traditional practices of ancestor worship and Christianity. For example, one 78-year-old parishioner wanted to commit her life to Christ but asked what she should do with her “god-shelf,” or miniature household altar. “That kind of deep-rooted concern is so evident in Japanese society,” Ozawa noted. “She wants to believe, but she has an older sister whose opinion of the god-shelf is very important and difficult to deny.”

At 61, Viljoen is entering a life stage similar to much of the Japanese population's, and he’s no stranger to the trials that come with aging. His first wife, Maude, died of breast cancer at a Sapporo hospice in 2007, where he spent long nights by her side. The head of the hospice, a Christian, told Viljoen that Maude’s death was an example to nonbelievers of what it looks like to face death fearlessly, eager to unite with Jesus on the other side.

Viljoen has since remarried. Now he and Karen visit Doronko each month to chat with the elderly, sometimes getting the opportunity to discuss their experiences and their faith. He sees his ministry as yorisou, or emotional support for the elderly, walking with them through the dark times and providing hope even when the winter seems bleakest.

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Taiwan. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.


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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Tue, 01/10/2017 03:38 am

    Great article! It is interesting how God is opening doors with the elderly in Japan and some Christians are using it to bring the gospel!  I do believe one way the devil works is getting us preoccupied with our busy lives; video games, mindless TV, constant exercise, and general frivolities. This way we don't ask the deep questions of life and don't seek God, which the devil likes to suppress.  Also, he tries to isolate us and keep us away from real substantive relationships which are conducive for spreading the gospel. Christians should work at developing strong relationships and families to better share the gospel with those around us! Carpe Diem! Again, great article which tells us how God is working in Japan.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Tue, 01/10/2017 06:16 am

    Thanks for a great article. Regardless of the causes, materialism is near the root of cultural suicide. The Japanese version may look different and there may be rationalizations that sound different but other cultures have the same problem.