Harumi Okubo’s dainty hands fill a row of round dumplings with vegetables. She lines them up next to a simmering hob.
Okubo, 79, has been baking oyaki, a pastry filled with vegetables or sweet bean paste, at a restaurant in her home village of Ogawa in Japan’s mountainous Nagano Prefecture for the last six years.
“Our generation has always worked hard,” the Japanese woman says proudly.
“Here I can chat,” the great-grandmother of two says. “After all, at home I would have nothing to talk about with my husband,” she jokes.
“Working to stay active for life” is the philosophy of his company, says Okubo’s employer Koryu Gonda. Of his 70 employees, 25 are over the age of 60.
Japan’s population is ageing at a faster rate than that of any other industrialised nation. According to the Interior Ministry in Tokyo, 29.1% of the country’s estimated 125 million are over 65 years old.
Japan also has the highest life expectancy globally. In 2021, the life expectancy for women stood at 87.6, while that of men was 81.5.
It is therefore not entirely surprising that people are working for longer in Japan than in other countries. The 9 million people older than 65 comprise 13.5% of the working population.
With the age of retirement recently becoming a hot topic in France, where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest the retirement age being raised from 62 to 64, it is worth taking a closer look at why Japanese employees work for longer.
For some, that is not a simple lifestyle choice.
In most Japanese companies, the mandatory retirement age is 60 or even earlier. More than 80% then stay on, but are paid drastically lower wages. Since they are only eligible for public pension benefits from the age of 65, many older people simply need the money.
Many seniors have to earn a living through very strenuous, manual jobs which are poorly paid, such as in the cleaning industry or on building sites.
On the other hand, data shows that older Japanese people are generally willing to work for longer than in other Western countries, Miho Fujinami from Chiba Keizai University told the Japan Times.
One example is Harumi and her colleagues. Their home town of Nagano is in a district where 31.6% of the population are over 65 years old, the highest proportion in the country.
This is partially due to a special focus on health care in the mountainous region where inhabitants are said to eat their five-a-day much more regularly compared to the national population.
Following the mantra “prevention is better than treatment”, doctors and nurses began to carry out regular check-ups on the region’s inhabitants shortly after World War II, says Shusuke Natsukawa, director of the Saku Central Hospital in Nagano.
Today, such group check-ups are common in companies and communities all over Japan.
On a nearby hill, Satoko Fujioka runs an innovative medical facility that organises medical home visits together with Natsukawa’s hospital while also providing a community hub for old and young alike.
The cosy wooden house, full of with books, musical instruments and toys, sees professionals looking after children with special needs and senior citizens cooking for locals.
“A place with a clinic and big kitchen,” Fujioka describes her so-called Hotch Lodge, smiling.
The facility aims to break generational barriers and offer elderly people a community, she says.
More and more senior citizens in Japan live on their own. This trend, not only on the rise in Japan, sees a shift away from younger generations living with and taking care of the elderly and towards a more nuclear family unit.
The Hotch Lodge is making sure elderly people are not left behind and continue to be surrounded by others.
“We don’t just see people here as patients or as consequences of ageing,” Fujioka says. Everyone has a personality, skills and experience that they can contribute to the community here, she adds.
Initiatives like the lodge help people to stay healthy longer and thus work longer. They also help to relieve the burden on a health system which is suffering under the strain of a declining birth rate and ageing population.
Added to this is the fact that Japan has no active immigration policy and thus depends more heavily on its senior citizens to fight the labour shortage.
Tokyo, however, has since realised that it cannot continue to rely on elderly people alone to combat the problem, recently declaring boosting the birth rate its highest priority.
“The next six or seven years will be our last chance,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. One of the measures he plans to introduce is financial incentives for having children and ensuring better laws in place to support men in sharing child-raising duties.
“We will work to change the national mentality to meet the challenges,” Japan’s leader recently promised.
Shusuke Natsukawa of Saku Central Hospital in Nagano is sceptical. The government has often promised great things, he says.
But in his view, it is simply “unrealistic for many young people today to get married and have children”.“The future is very uncertain.” – dpa/Lars Nicolaysen