Japan considers moving elderly from Tokyo to relieve crowding

Resources in the country’s capital are strained as the number of old people soars

Over the next decade, the population of over-75s in greater Tokyo will grow by 1.75 million, think-tank the Japan Policy Council has warned. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty

Over the next decade, the population of over-75s in greater Tokyo will grow by 1.75 million, think-tank the Japan Policy Council has warned. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty

 

In Japanese folklore, families long ago supposedly took their old into remote areas and left them to die.

The government was forced this month to deny it intends to revive the practice in the country’s overcrowded capital.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said encouraging old people to leave the city would revitalise local areas. Suga was speaking in support of a proposal by the Japan Policy Council, a think-tank with links to businesses and top bureaucrats.

Over the next decade, the population of over-75s in greater Tokyo will grow by 1.75 million, warns the council. Looking after 5.7 million very elderly people will overwhelm already stretched services; for one thing, it predicts, more than 130,000 could be left without beds in care homes.

Diffusing Japan’s demographic time-bomb has become something of a political obsession.

By 2060, Japan’s population is projected to fall from 127 million to about 87 million, of which almost 40 per cent will be 65 or older. Last year the government pledged to somehow stem the fall at 100 million.

Cabinet position

To that end, it has created a new cabinet position for “overcoming population decline and revitalising local economies”.

Last year, an advisory body to prime minister Shinzo Abe suggested the country should allow 200,000 more foreigners in every year.

The latest recommendation, however, has raised eyebrows.

Shigeru Ishiba, the minister in charge of regional revitalisation, was forced this month to deny the government was dumping its old in the regions. “Nobody is talking about forcing people to move,” he insisted.

Mass elderly migration is not as implausible as it sounds, says Hideki Koizumi, an urban engineer at the University of Tokyo. Hundreds of regional communities in Japan are existentially threatened by population decline.

A small army of care workers will be needed to look after Tokyo’s old in the coming years, further draining these communities and crowding services and people in the capital. Moving some to provincial cities could boost local economies.

But there are problems: Pensioners prefer to be surrounded by family in communities they know, points out Hideki Koizumi, an urban engineer at the University of Tokyo. “Research indicates that this helps to keep them healthy.”

Still, the think-tank says it has already found 41 regional areas that have the resources to take the pressure off Tokyo. Some are considering the proposal.

Silver influx

Kitakyushu City, in the southwest, says it has just one concern: the government has yet to present anything like a concrete plan on how to pay for residences, nursing and medical care for the silver influx.

The central government will need to offer heavy subsidies, say experts, and it can ill-afford them. Moreover, it would mean reversing neo-liberal policies aimed at forcing regional economies to pay their own way.

“Overall, it seems quite cynical to me,” says Philip Seaton, a Japan expert at Hokkaido University.

The details of the proposal, and its costs, have not been worked out, admits Keisuke Takayama, a spokesman for the council. “We are merely trying to trigger discussion.”

Tokyo is at the vanguard of demographic changes taking place across the developed world, says Florian Coulmas, a population expert. Wealth and good healthcare has created what he calls Japan’s “catastrophic success” – the world’s longest life expectancy. “These are megatrends that nobody planned.”

It is indicative of how desperate the situation is that the government is considering such schemes at all, he says.