Japan is Number 1

written by the Science & Technology Office Tokyo

Japan is well known for many things in the world – Robots, Anime, Manga and Samurai. Lately, it has also been in the news for its rapidly aging and shrinking society.

fig1The number of elderly people aged 65 or older accounts for 26.7 percent of the 127.11 million total population, up 3.7 percentage points from five years ago, a summary report of the 2015 national census shows. While the number of elderly aged 65 or older increased steadily from 5.72% (1960) to the currently more than 25%, the number of children aged from 0 to 14 dropped from 30.2% (1960) to 12.9% (2015) (Source: Worldbank). With world’s highest life-expectancy — the average life expectancy in Japan was according to the WHO 86.8 years for women and 80.5 years for men in 2015 — and the very low fertility-rate (2015: 1.43 births/ woman; Switzerland in comparison: 1.52 births/ woman), Japan is world’s fastest aging society and therefore also a test-bed for the future of many advanced societies.

Fact is that currently more adult diapers are being sold than baby diapers and there are twice as many people who are over 65 years of age than the number of children under the age of 15.

From Silver to Platinum


Figure: Prof. Akiyama et al. (2008)

Various terms have been coined for Japan’s aging society, from silver society to platinum society. Latter term was coined by former University of Tokyo President Prof. Komiyama who defines the platinum society as a society that “fulfills the wants”. One condition for the platinum society is to have the whole society involved, including seniors who have to be active and “participate with dignity”. The idea is to have the elderly society participate actively in work-life and age healthily up until a high age. It is commonly accepted that nutrition, exercise and communication are important for good health; in Japan however 25% of aging people are living alone (and this percentage is expected to even increase in the near future) often having limited communication and insufficient nutrition. Furthermore, the average daily walking distance of the seniors is limited to about 500 meters around the house!

Japan’s solutions for all these issues are of technological nature – exoskeleton robots for exercise, self-driving cars to increase mobility and tele-presence robots for communication.

Senior Entrepreneurs vs. Shrinking workforce

By 2055, the nation’s population is expected to fall by almost one third to less than 90 million, after having reached its peak in 2015 with nearly 128 million.


Figure from The Platinum Society by Prof. Komiyama (http://platinum.mri.co.jp/sites/default/files/page/20130107tss.pdf)

Tokyo was one of the few parts of Japan whose population increased; the number of residents in the metropolitan area rose last year by 0.7% to 13.4 million. While young people are moving to cities for jobs, the aging population moves to urban centers to seek better medical attention and treatment, leading to an accelerated depopulation of the countryside and an increase in population in the cities.

Japan’s demographic shift is so extreme that despite having the highest proportion of working seniors among developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, it is not enough to stem the labor shortage.

While 80% of retired people are actively looking for a job, the number of workers older than 65 rose to 7.3 million in 2015, or 21.7 percent of the population for that age group, according to data from the statistics bureau.

The number of workers is projected to decline to 56 million in 2030 from 64 million in 2014. This forecast by the government-related group “Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training”, assumes that the economy and the labor force participation rate won’t change. To avoid such a shortage, the country needs to come up with more innovative policies in order to pull seniors into the workforce.

Taxi drivers in Japan (2014):

Average age: 58.6 years
Average working hours: 192 hours/ month
Average annual salary: CHF 28’000

By 2011, 51.6 percent of Tokyo’s taxi drivers were over 60 and only about 1 percent female.

Japanese Government estimates that by 2055, two out of five Japanese will be 65 or older, double the current figure. Japan’s labor force could shrink to about 56 million in 2030 from 66.6 million in 2006, unless the labor participation rate picks up among women, the elderly, the young and foreigners. In 2005 there were 3.3 workers aged between 15 and 64 supporting each person 65 or over; that proportion however is predicted to be down to 1.3 workers for each elderly person in 2055. Hand in hand with the aging of society, costs related to social security benefits, which include pensions and medical expenses for the elderly, are expected to increase to 141 trillion yen ($1.2 trillion) in fiscal 2025/26, compared with 85.6 trillion in fiscal 2004/05.

Even though the cost of Japan’s social security system is high, it provides only modest support for retirees: Pension benefits on average amount to just around 40% of workers’ pre-retirement earnings (compared to ~66% for the average OECD worker). Many Japanese citizens are therefore forced to work until later in their lives in order to build up savings ahead of an anticipated smaller, fixed income.

In 2012, about one third of new entrepreneurs were 60 or older (1980’s: <10%), according to the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency, part of the trade ministry METI. The self-employed seniors tend to provide management consulting and other services, using from their professional experience.

Robots, Robots and maybe women to the rescue – PM Abe’s vision

Allowing immigration would be the easiest and fastest way to tackle the problem of an aging and shrinking population. The low fertility rate, the pension problem and the lack of qualified nurses who look after the elderly could be addressed with a change in Japan’s immigration policy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration however will not consider such a measure and prefers to pour large amounts of resources into robotics hoping to solve the problem of the care of the elderly – an increasingly unpopular line of work among young Japanese.

“Interestingly, attitudes towards immigration in Japan become more positive the more fluent a person is in English, suggesting that boosting English education may help to make Japanese more accepting of immigration.” – Prof. F. Gygi, SOAS, University of London states.

Increasing the work-participation of women is another measure that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had pledge in 2013. After his economic policies had been coined “Abenomics”, this part of the policies was named “Womenomics” after Goldman Sachs Chief Strategist Kathy Matsui. Unfortunately, the government is far behind the set numbers from three years ago, including the goal of women holding at least 30% of senior positions in all parts of society by 2020. Currently, about 66% of women are working, up from 60% in 2010. However, nearly 60% of Japan’s working women are in part-time or temporary jobs, many of them even without social security benefits. According to Kathy Matsui, Japan is simply “running out of people. That’s the economic reality we’re facing … so we really need to focus harder on the women.”

In the meantime the government is funding more robot related research and calling for the development of robotics-based nursing-care equipment as part of its Japan Revitalization Strategy. Japan will be “utilizing state-of-the-art robots that will contribute to a wide variety of problems, including population decrease and aging society.” Even though Japan is known for being a technology-loving country, and Japan’s original religion, Shintoism assumes that even inanimate objects have a soul; do the elderly really want to be taken care of by robots? – Maybe not. But assistive robots, communication robots, smart wheelchairs and even autonomous cars have a huge market potential in Japan’s aging society.


Switzerland-Japan events 

The Science & Technology Office Tokyo has been working on topics related to Japan’s aging society for several years with events in collaboration with academia, think-tanks and private industry:

In September 2012, the 1st follow-up meeting to the “Demographic Ageing in Japan and Switzerland; Action through Exchange and Dialogue” was held in conjunction with the OECD-APEC-Waseda University Joint Conference and workshops on aging society. More than 20 high-level professionals including the President of Keio University, Prof. Atsushi Seike, and Prof. Hiroko Akiyama of the University of Tokyo, participated in the meeting led by Dr. Hans Groth, Chairman of the Board of the World Demographic & Ageing Forum.
Further information: http://www.sccij.jp/fileadmin/sccij/newsletter/2012/Demographic_Ageing_Symposium.pdf

In collaboration with Nestle Research Tokyo, the Science & Technology Office Tokyo initiated the “Aging Dialog between Switzerland and Japan”.
Various aspects related to this topic with Swiss and Japanese perspectives were discussed. The first part focused on the macro side – policy and economy. The second part looked into more particular issues and potential solutions.
After the opening of the symposium by Ambassador Urs Bucher (Embassy of Switzerland) and Dr. Fabrizio Arigoni (Head of Nestlé Research Center Tokyo & Beijing), three speakers from Academia elaborated on “Health Policy in Aging Societies” – discussing the differences and similarities between Switzerland and Japan. In a second stream, the focus was put on the “Challenges of an Aging Society and Key Factors for Healthy Aging”.
Further Information: http://www.stofficetokyo.ch/joint-event-aging-dialog-between-switzerland-and-japan/

The Japanese-Swiss Joint Workshop on Aging, Health, and Technology was held in Tokyo from March 18 to 20, 2015. The event was hosted by the University of Zurich (UZH) and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) and held at the JST headquarters in Ichigaya. Besides JST and UZH, the workshop was also sponsored by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich and the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW).
The workshop involved people from both countries’ various institutions and from broad academic disciplines related to the field of healthy aging. One goal was to foster the Japanese-Swiss collaboration in this field due to the fact that both nations experience drastic demographic changes and challenges.
Further information: http://www.stofficetokyo.ch/first-japanese-swiss-joint-workshop-on-aging-health-and-technology/

This year, we welcomed a delegation of Switzerland’s Universities of Applied Sciences in Tokyo. The trip, organized by swissuniversities.ch in collaboration with Swissnex China, and the S&T Offices Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, led the 12 professors to three countries. The program was densely filled with a diverse program: universities, startups, governmental institutions as well as hospitals were visited.
Further information: http://www.stofficetokyo.ch/swiss-universities-of-applied-sciences-discover-asia/


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