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.