Photographers' Blog

Republic of the elderly

October 2, 2012

By Kim Kyung-hoon

There are several key descriptive phrases to keep in mind when talking about Japan; one obvious to everyone is “Rapidly Aging Society”.

The rise of the elderly population and falling birth rate are no longer surprising news. One in four people in Japan is now over 65 years.

If you have the chance to walk around Tokyo’s downtown area, you’ll probably nod your head in recognition of the truth of this phrase. When you stop at a crosswalk to cross the street, you will find yourself surrounded by people who have silver hair and are stooped with age. When you watch TV you will see commercials for adult diapers and denture washers, common during prime time. Because the elderly are a big consumer group in Japan, Japanese enterprises never forget to satisfy the elderly and they gladly provide elderly consumers with their state-of-the-art technologies such as a care robot or a walk-assist robot.

The predominance of elderly people is not rare even in underground culture. If you go to an adult video shop, you can easily find a 78-year-old porno star who has starred in several hundred movies. His movies stimulate his peers to enjoy an active life with their partners as long as they are able.

However, not all the elderly are enjoying their golden age.

Some old people die alone, their bodies sometimes undiscovered for days. In Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, at least 25 elderly have died alone in their homes and 4.6 million elderly are living alone across Japan, according to the Japanese government’s data released last year.

The elderly are more vulnerable to disaster than others especially living in one of the most seismically unstable countries. The government’s statistics show that over half of the 27,500 dead or missing people in last year’s tsunami disaster were found to be older than 60.

A few weeks ago, I covered nationwide disaster prevention drills to prepare for the strong earthquakes which occur in Japan. In a drill held in a district where the elderly population is dense, one exercise involved elderly men and women practicing rescuing other elderly victims in the absence of a younger generation in their neighborhood.

September 17th was Respect for the Aged Day, a Japanese holiday to honor our elderly citizens. On that day I got a glimpse of “Sugamo”, a popular shopping district for the elderly. There are hundreds of shops selling goods such as traditional sweets, soul foods, and clothes. The businesses are conscious of their elderly consumers and gear their services to their needs. In a park in the district, old men and women gathered to learn a gymnastic exercise which was invented especially for the elderly. In the streets of Sugamo, the elderly population significantly exceeds the young and elderly people in wheelchairs are more common than babies in strollers.

Recently, a Japanese research group claimed that theoretically, Japanese will become extinct in 1,000 years because of the declining birth rates. This timeline is only theoretical but it might not be a false theory when we look around us. Pregnancy has become only a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Japanese women and the elderly population is growing so fast.

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