By Mari Yamaguchi
The Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — This past Friday, May 22, Japan welcomed the news that it had topped the world longevity ratings, but with its citizens living increasingly longer lives, it may soon become hard for the government to find enough young taxpayers to support them.
The statistics for 2007 published by the World Health Organization put Japan at the top of the longevity list, reporting that the average life expectancy was almost 83 years — 86 years for women and 79 years for men — up from 81 years in 2000.
“A steady increase of Japan’s longevity reflects good medical care, nutrition, and successful economic development, and that alone is a good thing,” Norie Handa, a Cabinet Office official in charge of aging issues, said Friday. “What we really have to look at is whether we can live long in good health, and peacefully.”
However, in a country where the birth rate has been declining for decades — the population fell by 51,000 last year, the sharpest decline ever — a longer life expectancy means a disproportionately large elderly population.
The number of people over the age of 65 has reached 22.5 percent of the population, and in a dozen years they will likely surge to nearly 30 percent, according to government estimates.
By contrast, the percentage of children in Japan is expected to fall to below 11 percent in the next decade, from the current 13 percent. The country already has the smallest percentage of children among 31 countries, trailing Germany and Italy, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications report.
Children make up about 20 percent of the U.S. population and 17 percent in neighboring South Korea.
The graying of society and the low birth rate is expected to strain government services and pension programs, as well as lead to labor shortages in the near future.
Crimes, alcoholism, and suicides among the elderly are also a growing problem because of low income, unstable employment, and poor living conditions. Weakening ties with relatives and neighbors have also been exacerbated by a shortage of nursing homes, thus putting a major burden on younger relatives.
Government efforts to boost the number of new babies have been unsuccessful thus far, and lawmakers have long been reluctant to relax the country’s strict immigration laws.
“As we expect the further aging of the society, we still have a lot to do to catch up,” Handa acknowledged.
As part of his recent economic stimulus measures, Prime Minister Taro Aso called for new financial support for childbirth and an expansion of neonatal intensive care units. His administration also introduced a health insurance system last year to deal with ballooning medical costs for people over the age of 75.
Officials have stepped up programs that encourage older citizens to stay active and continue working. The government is gradually extending the retirement age to 65 from 60 and is even pushing for a further extension to 70. ♦