Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had made welfare a prime target in his efforts to cut government spending. Since coming into office in 2001, Koizumi has particularly focused on health care and pension reform. This version has been corrected.
The Face of Poverty Ages In Rapidly Graying Japan
Friday, July 28, 2006
TOKYO -- What is left after Gosuke Kakizaki's 73 years of life as a magazine typesetter turned failed businessman turned penniless retiree is contained in two small rooms of a gray public housing complex far from the glittery core of this city. A white teakettle, a few stacks of books and a little TV set remain, as do mounted photographs from the hiking trips he stopped taking about three years ago.
That was when he was hit by the first of a series of deep cuts in welfare assistance for destitute seniors, a group whose swelling numbers are aging the face of poverty in Japan. For Kakizaki -- an "elderly orphan" living alone and entirely dependent on the state -- the reductions have slashed the government checks he must get by on in hyper-pricey Tokyo from $826 to $625 a month.
"I can't afford transportation, film for my camera or the photo-developing fees for such trips anymore," said the soft-spoken Kakizaki, who is long divorced and has only sporadic contact with his two adult children. "The photos are all I have left. I can barely afford to feed myself now."
As the world's most rapidly graying nation struggles to cope with the exploding costs of its aging population, it is cutting back its famed safety net of universal health care, generous pensions and welfare benefits for seniors of all social classes. But those already living on the margins are being hit the hardest.
Over the past decade, the number of indigent seniors nationwide skyrocketed by 183 percent to about half a million people, Welfare Ministry statistics show. Most of them are victims of the protracted recession that Japan endured in the '90s, and many have been abandoned by children bucking the Japanese tradition of living with one's elderly parents.
The creation of a new underclass of the down, out and old in Japan -- a country that long prided itself on being a "one-class society" -- is giving public housing complexes the feel of poor retirement communities. Almost one in every two people on welfare in Japan is now 65 or older, the government here reports. By comparison, roughly one in 10 welfare recipients in the United States are senior citizens, according to U.S. government statistics.
The homeless population expanded rapidly during the recession years and now numbers about 30,000, according to advocacy groups. An official survey in 2003 put the average age of the homeless at 56. The government requires seniors to have a fixed address to receive welfare, so many on the streets are getting no support.
Now the Japanese economy -- the world's second-largest -- is in the midst of a buoyant recovery. But the country is moving toward a more American-style system of senior services by shifting the burden of care from the government to the elderly themselves.
"The government talks about how we need to be more independent and care for ourselves now," said Kakizaki. "But we are old. How are we supposed to become independent at our age? How can they even ask us to?"
Many industrialized nations, including the United States and countries in Western Europe, are grappling with the question of how to care for their aging populations. But none is confronting the task on a greater scale than Japan.
One in five Japanese is now over 65, and by 2050, the figure is projected to reach nearly one in three. This year, the cost of public pensions, health care and welfare services for the aged reached a record $828 billion -- six times higher than in 1986, according to government statistics. By 2025, conservative estimates project the figure will rise to $1.37 trillion -- a figure that would then amount to 28 percent of Japan's gross national income.
Meanwhile, Japan has one of the world's lowest birthrates, raising doubts that the next generation of Japanese taxpayers can support the pension system.