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What it feels like to be 'old' in ageing Japan

Shoppers taking a break on the ninth floor of the swanky Mitsukoshi department store in the shopping district of Ginza in Tokyo. Japan’s department stores have been adapting to a rapidly graying population by providing more rest areas. -- ST P
Shoppers taking a break on the ninth floor of the swanky Mitsukoshi department store in the shopping district of Ginza in Tokyo. Japan’s department stores have been adapting to a rapidly graying population by providing more rest areas. -- ST PHOTO: HAU BOON LAI

Struck down by a bad back earlier this year, my mobility was severely crimped and daily activities like getting on buses and trains suddenly became a major challenge.

I was forced to use a number of Tokyo’s elderly-friendly public infrastructure conveniences, an experience which opened my eyes to how Japan, the fastest greying society in the world, has been adapting to the needs of older citizens.

For one, lifts are much more commonly found on overhead bridges and subway train platforms these days, thanks to a major lift installation programme that began in earnest in 2008. In the past, lifts were common only in high-rise buildings in Japan, while many stations in the country’s extensive and labyrinthine train network were only accessible by stairs.

The lifts are a boon to people like the retiree I chatted with. “It’s been easier to get about in recent years thanks to the lifts in train stations,” Mr Tasei, who is in his 70s and declined to give his first name, said before the lift took us to our respective train platforms. 

Then there are Japan’s shuttle buses, run by department stores, big retailers and even performance halls, which distinguish themselves with drivers who are courteous but more importantly, drive with great care on the road. On the public buses run by the local municipality, all the seats are marked “priority” to cater to the many elderly out on their own as well as pregnant women. 

Japan

Major cab companies in Japan also each run a small fleet of taxis driven by qualified caregivers - a special service I discovered several months ago when the pain caused by several herniated discs was excruciating and I could not take public transport to my regular physiotherapy session.

These drivers do not just provide door-to-door service. They even accompany the elderly to the doctor’s and assist them in errands like grocery shopping.

The need for such services and elderly-friendly features in public amenities can only grow in Japan, where one in four of its 127 million population are aged 65 years and above. Compare this to the post-war baby boom year of 1960, when the elderly made up only 5.7 per cent of the population, and 1985, when it was still just 10 per cent. According to government projections, the number of seniors in Japan will increase to 37 million by 2035. With the population also shrinking to about 112 million, they would then form more than 33 per cent of the population.

These statistics mean policymakers and corporations alike have to do more to accommodate the needs of the fast-growing ranks of the elderly, and go beyond merely making public transport more accessible.

There isn’t a major national programme to do that just yet. But you can tell from the little details that the process is well underway.

If, for instance, the road signs in Japan seem clearer to you, it’s not because you have good eyesight. Rather, it is because local municipalities and the government have made sure the font size for the names is bigger to better help the elderly recognise the signs.

Retailers have also been doing their part. Over the years, Japan’s department stores have added more seats on every floor so that there are enough resting spots for elderly shoppers when they are tired. Handrails are also becoming a regular sight at restaurants and public toilets.

The steps that Japan has taken in promoting active ageing and providing the necessary support for the elderly to be out and about makes me wish my 74-year-old mother, who had a heart attack five years ago, were living here instead of Singapore. Mobile but house-bound since 2010, she goes out only when she has a doctor’s appointment and is always accompanied by a family member.

While the Singapore government has taken the lead in making public amenities more elder-friendly, I feel, after my experience in Japan, that much more can be done. Singapore, for example, has invested a lot in hardware, like wheelchair-friendly kneeling buses. But the “software” is in short supply.

In Japan, the shuttle and public buses used may not be as advanced. But the focus is – rightly, in my mind – on training drivers to drive slowly and to avoid any sudden braking that may cause elderly passengers to lose their footing, and with it, perhaps, their confidence in taking public transport or going out.

The idea here in Japan is that there is more to a senior citizen’s life than doctor’s appointments. Cab companies, for instance, promote a four-hour “outing” costing about 16,000 yen (S$200) where the driver-cum-qualified caregiver takes an elderly person to see the doctor and after that to do some shopping.

I am pretty sure there will be a healthy demand for similar services in Singapore in the years ahead.

boonlai@sph.com.sg