Old is gold in Japan

With one quarter of Japan's population aged over 65 years old, services are increasingly being fine tuned to cater to the elderly, from offering them special discounts to helping them with their daily shopping. There's even a special day set aside fo
With one quarter of Japan's population aged over 65 years old, services are increasingly being fine tuned to cater to the elderly, from offering them special discounts to helping them with their daily shopping. There's even a special day set aside for them.  The third Monday of September each year is Respect for the Aged Day. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Elderly people sit in the sun and chat each other at Tokyo's Sugamo district on December 20, 2008. Tokyo is well-known for its hip districts for young people, but as Japan's population ages, a new type of fashionable area is coming into vogue, a hub
Elderly people sit in the sun and chat each other at Tokyo's Sugamo district on December 20, 2008. Tokyo is well-known for its hip districts for young people, but as Japan's population ages, a new type of fashionable area is coming into vogue, a hub for the elderly. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

Being old has its privileges in Japan and it is more than about things like having people give up their seats for you on the train or bus.

With one quarter of the population aged over 65 years old, services are increasingly being fine tuned to cater to the elderly, from offering them special discounts to helping them with their daily shopping.

There's even a special day set aside for them.

Today (Sept 16) happens to be Respect for the Aged Day.

Following a legal amendment in 2001 to give Japan more three-day weekends so as to stimulate personal consumption, this special holiday has fallen on the third Monday of September each year.

According to the latest population statistics, one in four Japanese is aged 65 or more, their numbers totaling 31.9 million. This is 1.1 million higher than a year earlier, the large jump due mainly to post-war baby boomers reaching 65.

Despite their age however, the elderly in Japan are remarkably fit and mobile.

The Sugamo district in Tokyo has for some time been known as the "Ginza for the Elderly" because of the large number of senior citizens that throng its shopping street every day.

They come not just from Tokyo itself but the surrounding prefectures as well.

Sugamo's popularity stems from the fact that shops that sell clothes for instance stock designs and colours that appeal to the elderly.

Senior citizens with aches and pains often flock to a temple half-way down the shopping street to douse purifying water on a bronze Buddhist statue and then proceed to rub it on a spot corresponding to that part of their own body which hurts.

The devout no doubt believe this simple act of devotion pays dividends.

The fortunate among Japan's elderly also have the money to travel abroad, often flying business class and staying in the best hotels, or going on long ocean cruises.

Those interested in photography are able to invest in expensive cameras. Many are fit enough to want to hike up mountain trails around the country.

But the government also recognises that there are many elderly Japanese who are less fortunate, such as those living in remote villages where getting to hospital or the local store is a major hassle.

The government is soon to start a trial project in such remote villages, especially targeted at elderly residents living alone.

The project will provide them with services such as sending them to and from hospital, delivering cooked food, house cleaning and grass-cutting, for a reasonable fee.

Similar services provided in the past by private organisations or even local authorities have often been derailed by lack of funds or manpower and are usually priced too high for the elderly users.

The trial project will attempt to identity the problems involved in providing such services before they are introduced around the country.

Private companies also do their bit.

Aeon, Japan's largest supermarket chain, sees elderly residents as an important source of revenue. In many urban areas, Aeon operates free bus services from major train stations to its outlets, which may be located on the edge of town.

In one district in Tsukuba city, an hour's train ride north of Tokyo, Aeon has started a trial, round-trip free bus service for elderly residents of a housing estate to make shopping less of a physical chore for them.

It is said that many of the residents now look forward to taking the bus to the local Aeon store each day as they also get to chat with their neighbours during the ride.

In addition, the over-65 customer who pays using Aeon's credit card gets a 5 per cent discount - equivalent to the present sales tax - on the 15th of each month.

Surprisingly, many of Japan's senior citizens continue to work.

Data shows that 27.9 per cent of men over 65, and 13.2 per cent of women, remain in the labour force.

Most are in the farming sector, followed by retail and services.

Many communities in urban areas maintain a "silver talent centre" where elderly residents with time on their hands can go to look for part-time work that, if they are lucky, may make use of their past working experience.

Incidentally, the use of "silver" to identify with the elderly in Japan happened purely by accident.

When the then national railway company was about to introduce special train seats for the elderly on its commuter trains 40 years ago, its designer wanted a material for the seats that would distinguish them from regular seats.

It so happened that the railway's workshop had a surplus of silver-grey cloth used for bullet train seats, which the designer commandeered for his special seats.

So it was that commuter trains ended up with "silver seats" for elderly and disabled passengers.

Although the seats were later extended to expectant mothers as well and renamed "priority seats", the word "silver" became synonymous with "elderly" for the Japanese.

While better nutrition over the years has contributed to the rise in Japan's silver population, it comes at a high cost in terms of a mounting health care bill for the country.

Population experts say that by 2035, one in three Japanese will be 65 or older.

One solution being considered by the present government is to get the elderly to pay a bigger share of their own medical bills - albeit with a monthly cap - and charging them extra if they visit a hospital without a referral from a general practitioner.

wengkin@sph.com.sg