Another key principle in the stratification of Japanese society is age. "Acting one's age" may be more important in Japan than in some other societies, resulting in relatively narrow age-ranges for such life cycle-events as university education, first job, or marriage. This pattern fits with the value placed on playing social roles appropriately.
Old age ideally represents a time of relaxation of social obligations, assisting with the family farm or business without carrying the main responsibility, socializing, and receiving respectful care from family and esteem from the community. In the late 1980s, high (although declining) rates of suicide among older people and the continued existence of temples where one could pray for quick death indicated that this ideal was not always fulfilled. Japan has a national holiday called Respect for the Aged Day, but for most people it is merely another day for picnics or an occasion when the commuter trains run on holiday schedules. True respect for the elderly may be questioned when buses and trains carry signs above specially reserved seats to remind people to give up their seats for elderly riders. Although the elderly might not have been accorded generalized respect based on age, many older Japanese continued to live full lives that included gainful employment and close relationships with adult children.
Although the standard retirement age in Japan throughout most of the postwar period was fifty-five, people aged sixty-five and over in Japan were more likely to work than in any other developed country in the 1980s. In 1987 about 36 percent of men and 15 percent of women in this age-group were in the labor force. With better pension benefits and decreased opportunities for agricultural or other self-employed work, however, labor force participation by the elderly has been decreasing since 1960. In 1986 about 90 percent of Japanese surveyed said that they wished to continue working after age sixty-five. They indicated both financial and health reasons for this choice. Other factors, such as a strong work ethic and the centering of men's social ties around the workplace, may also be relevant. Employment was not always available, however, and men and women who worked after retirement usually took substantial cuts in salary and prestige. Between 1981 and 1986, the proportion of people sixty and over who reported that a public pension was their major source of income increased from 35 percent to 53 percent, while those relying most on earnings for income fell from 31 to 25 percent and those relying on children decreased from 16 to 9 percent.
In the 1980s, there was a major trend toward the elderly maintaining separate households rather than co-residing with the families of adult children. The proportion living with children decreased from 77 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 1985, although this rate was still much higher than in other industrialized countries. The number of elderly living in Japan's retirement or nursing homes also increased from around 75,000 in 1970 to more than 216,000 in 1987; still, this group was a small portion of the total elderly population. People living alone or only with spouses constituted 32 percent of the sixty-five-and-over group. Less than half of those responding to a government survey believed that it was the duty of the eldest son to care for parents, but 63 percent replied that it was natural for children to take care of their elderly parents. The motive of co-residence seems to have changed, from being the expected arrangement of an agricultural society to being an option for coping with circumstances such as illness or widowhood in a postindustrial society.
Concern for the health of the aged receives a great deal of attention, and nearly free medical care for people over seventy years of age is a national policy. Responsibility for the care of the aged, bedridden, or senile, however, still devolves mainly on family members, usually daughters-in-law.
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