A nationwide search for missing elderly people in Japan is turning up more macabre and mysterious stories every day. The hunt began earlier this month after Tokyo officials found the mummified body of an 111-year-old man in his bed, 30 years after his death. On Aug. 10, the city of Kobe admitted that the last registered address of the woman who at 125 years old would be Japan’s oldest citizen has been a public park since 1981.
With almost one-quarter of the population over 65 years old, Japan has more than 40,300 centenarians, about 87 percent of them women. Government officials suspect that more supposed centenarians are dead, and at least some of the deaths went unreported by family members so they could continue to claim the elderly relatives’ retirement benefits.
As troubling as any hunt for bodies is, the real issue for Japan is the living. Adults relying on their parents’ retirement income is just one of many painful social distortions Japan’s long economic stagnation has produced. Among the others: a declining marriage rate, an increase in adults living with their parents, and a birth rate so low that many demographers fear it may never recover. These shifts have created a negative, self-perpetuating spiral for the world’s third-largest economy. Other developed countries that are struggling to create jobs, like the United States, should take note.
The relatives (usually children) of the missing Japanese centenarians located thus far have all been of retirement age, people old enough to be getting their own social security checks. But a growing number of younger Japanese citizens are depending on their retired parents for financial support. On Aug. 12, police arrested a 56-year-old unemployed man in central Mie prefecture on suspicion that he starved his mother to death two years ago and has been living on her pension ever since.
“People are living with their parents because they can’t afford to live alone. With their parents, somehow they can make ends meet,” says Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University who a decade ago coined the term parasite singles to describe adults who still live with their parents. “Even after their parents die, they still need to rely on their pension.”
About 2.6 million single men and women between the ages of 35 and 44, or nearly 15 percent of Japanese in that age group, were living with their parents as of 2007, up from 1.4 million in 1997, according to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Statistical Research and Training Institute. A quarter of a million of these people were unemployed, creating a perverse situation. Professor Yamada cites stories of parents using their own public retirement benefits to pay their children’s contributions to the same scheme. “This would be funny if it were not so sad,” he wrote in a 2008 essay.
It’s not just Japanese who are seeking succor from their parents. In the United States, the proportion of 25-to-34-year-olds living in multigenerational households rose from 11 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 2008. According to a Pew Research survey published in November 2009, 13 percent of parents with adult children said one of these kids had moved back home over the previous year. (American parasite singles are known as boomerangers.) The International Labor Organization warned in a recent report that rising youth unemployment rates could create a “lost generation”—a term that has been used for years to describe Japanese who entered the workforce in the 1990s.
While many Japanese have historically remained at home until marriage because “living in sin” is still frowned upon, it’s increasingly commonplace for young people to live with their parents out of economic necessity. Fumiaki Higuchi, a 30-year-old graphic design student, has tumbled from one low-paying job to the next in the decade or so since he graduated from high school, selling jeans one year and patrolling the floor of a pachinko gambling parlor the next. Higuchi moved out of his parents’ home only briefly in his late 20s, when he and his wife pooled their paychecks to rent an apartment.
Today, Higuchi and his wife, who works for a utility company, are back in the house where he grew up, with no immediate plans to leave. His 28-year-old sister also moved back home after she and her husband divorced; she brought her two children. Higuchi’s closest high-school friends still live in the neighborhood with their parents. “All my buddies are here,” he says.
Of course, Japan hardly has a monopoly on children who delay leaving the nest. As people wait longer to get married, they’re more likely to stay at home in cultures where this is socially acceptable. Living with one’s parents is relatively common in Italy and Spain, for example. Some Japanese people insist that living with their extended family is simply more convenient. “I could afford to live on my own if I wanted to,” says Junya, a single 29-year-old teacher with a master’s degree who lives with his parents and grandparents. “I just really don’t think there’s any need to.”
Still, Japanese scholars draw a connection between the number of people living with their parents, the falling marriage rate, and the country’s grim economy, which creates fewer employment opportunities every year. The number of job openings in Japan has fallen for the last three years running and collapsed by 23 percent last year alone, according to the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.
“With an uncertain future ahead of them, people don’t have the confidence to get married,” says Toru Suzuki, a senior researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, echoing a common sentiment.
Japan’s marriage rate has fallen from more than 10 marriages per thousand people in the 1970s to 5.8 per thousand in 2008, according to Japanese government data. (The U.S. marriage rate was 7.1 per thousand that year.) Almost half of Japanese men and one-third of women in their early 30s were still single as of 2005.
The number of people who never marry, defined in Japan as those who are not married by age 50, is also on the rise. Nationally, 16 percent of Japanese men and 7.3 percent of women were considered lifetime singletons as of 2005, up from about 1.7 percent to 2.1 percent for men and between 3.3 percent and 4.3 percent for women in the 1970s. Rural areas have it even harder: In northern Iwate prefecture, almost one in five men never finds a wife.
In Japan, where out-of-wedlock births are relatively rare, scholars argue that the collective failure to launch further depresses Japan’s declining birth rate and prolongs the country’s economic stagnation. Demographers argue that Japan may have fallen into what is known as a “low fertility trap,” in which a long period of extremely low birth rates essentially makes a society unable to pick itself up again and produce more babies. The worry is that the declining birth rate, combined with expanding ranks of elderly, will depress Japanese economic growth: There will be fewer workers to support more retirees, a shrinking workforce, and falling demand for Japanese companies’ products and services.
Warren Sanderson, a professor of economics at Stony Brook University, has argued that the inability of young Japanese to find stable, well-paid jobs could be hindering the country’s attempts to raise its birth rate. Bouncing from job to job, Sanderson has written, “people do not feel that they have the resources or time to form families and have children. Some never do and some wait so long that low fertility is ensured.”
Raising Japan’s birth rate is only part of the solution. In a seeming paradox in a country with an unemployment rate about half of America’s (5.3 percent as of June, compared with joblessness of 9.5 percent in the United States), one of Japan’s biggest problems is its failure to create jobs.
In what will be a familiar refrain to the Obama administration, most Japanese commentators blame the government. “The role of the government is crucial in making a society sustainable,” says Sawako Shirahase, a sociology professor at the University of Tokyo who has written about inequality in Japan. “We can’t rely heavily on the family, but we can’t rely heavily on the market itself. Now the role of the government is getting larger and larger.”