Single households have become the most common type of living arrangement among Japanese, with one-third of the population residing alone, according to a 2010 National Census report issued June 29.
Japan remained the world’s oldest country in demographic terms for the second consecutive year, with its 23.1% of residents aged 65 or over a greater proportion than any other nation. The figures display the seriousness of Japan’s position of having a low birthrate and rapidly aging population, with the growth in single households a reflection of an increase in the number of elderly.
As Reed Maurer, a veteran Japanese pharmaceutical industry watcher, told Majirox in an earlier article, many houses are also too small to care for someone who is chronically ill. The acute care hospitals in the 1970s were important because this was a young population and those with acute diseases got better. Today people are older and they will not get better.
In other words, there is no longer a “three-generation” family home in Japan. Instead there are homes for the elderly or nursing homes for those who are sick. These places are a trend against which I set my face 33 years ago when I invited my wife Akiko’s mother, Fumi-san, to live with us in Tokyo.
This arrangement proved its worth in gold when in 1985 our son Harry was born, and Akiko and I, a busy metropolitan couple, needed all the help we could get running the home and looking after a tiny baby.
Thereafter I saw the confirmation of the usefulness of the three generations in our home: Fumi-san, born in 1919, I; born in l938, and Akiko in 1950, straddling the Second World War period; and then followed by the birth of Harry when I was already 47 years old. What did Aki and I know at that point of how to bring up a child? The whole thing was a mystery. Only we had Fumi-san on board to set the direction. She raised Harry, while Aki and I continued our selfish ways. We couldn’t change.
Now, more than 30 years later I find myself looking after Fumi-san. The roles have swung round. I get her up in the morning, bring her a cup of tea, and get her started walking towards the loo. I am taking care of a 91-year-old baby while in England Akiko is busy managing our property, and visits us, sometimes staying up to half a year, but I still run the show in Tokyo.
I used to think this was impossible. I used to complain. What did I know about nursing? Was I destined to be a nurse? As a matter of fact, yes, I was and I am. To run things I receive help. Harada-san, home help, comes Monday mornings at 10 to clean up for 90 minutes.
Harada-san has common sense and can be consulted for anything. But at the end of the day, I still run the show: laundry, cleaning the house, cooking breakfast and dinner, which comes as a home delivery obento, and shopping.
Our multiple-generation home may well remain intact, but where once we had someone in their 60s caring for those in their 40s, 30s and an infant, now we have me, in my 70s, nursing Fumi-san in her 90s.
My guess is that a small but increasing numbers of Japanese families will try and stick together. The alternative is arduous. Sending one’s mom into a nursing home, where she knows not a soul, is reminiscent of the ancient Japanese practice of obasuteyama meaning “to throw out the grannies on the mountain.” I am sure that the practice was never widely observed. However, the existence of the poetic term shows us that how we live with our elderly has been an issue since time immemorial in Japan.
Scott Stokes was the former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times. His upcoming book on Commodore Perry is published by Overlook Press of New York.